Capitals’ Goalie History Repeating With Vanecek’s Hot Start

With the recent success of young Washington Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek, another rookie goaltender from the Caps’ past resurfaced: Jim Carey.

Vanecek’s streak of seven games (5-0-2) without a regulation came to an end Monday against the Boston Bruins, much like Carey’s franchise record of games to start an NHL career without a regulation loss came to an end after eighth career appearances (6-0-0-1) back in the shortened 1994-95 season.

But the circumstances where the “Net Detective” came into action was much different to the Capitals back in 1995. While Vanecek was pressed into service thanks to the COVID protocol and Henrik Lundqvist’s heart ailment, Carey’s arrival was brought on by pure desperation.

Capitals Struggle Badly Out of the Gate

Like the current season, the 1994-95 NHL season was cut short and started in January, although this was due to a labor dispute that shrunk the season to 48 games in what was billed by the Capitals as the “Sprint to the Playoffs.”

But instead of a sprint, Washington stumbled out of the gate. Badly.

The previous season saw the Capitals adapt well under new coach Jim Schoenfeld, who was hired in January and guided Washington into the playoffs, where the team recorded a first-round upset over the Pittsburgh Penguins, before bowing out to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers.

With the late start to the year, seven months following their playoff run, the Capitals started off the regular-season winless on a three-game road trip to start the season (0-2-1), then split a four-game homestand. But a five-game road trip left Washington with a 2-8-2 mark in mid-February, and by the time the month ended, the Caps were just 3-10-5 with 26 games to play. 

Washington had used its top three goalies during the first part of the campaign, with the eventual late-blooming Olie Kolzig, prospect Byron Dafoe and journeyman Rick Tabaracci. While the trio wasn’t allowing a ton of goals, it simply wasn’t enough to prop up the sagging Caps, and with the team seven points out of a playoff spot at the beginning of March and a short runway to try and qualify for the postseason, the Caps opted for a Hail Mary to try and save the shortened season.

‘Net Detective’ Arrives in Washington

With the AHL season running at a normal length and starting in October, Massachusetts native Jim Carey had the defending Calder Cup champion Portland Pirates off and running early, helping the team off to a 13-0-3 start to the campaign. By the time he was called up to Washington in March, he had posted a 30-14-11 mark as the team’s top goaltender, along with a .909 save percentage (SV%).

Carey, who wasn’t sure he’d even leave the University of Wisconsin the previous summer, was guided by his brother, Baltimore Orioles prospect Paul Carey, and a $300,000 signing bonus lured him to leave Madison and turn pro, but he expected to remain in Maine for the entire season with Washington’s goaltending depth.

So, after the loss in Philadelphia that left them nearly finished in the playoff chase on February 28, Washington made a desperation move and called up Carey to start on March 2 against the New York Islanders. The Capitals hadn’t won a road game all season in 11 tries and needed a win badly at Nassau Coliseum.

“Desperate situations call for desperate measures,” Schoenfeld told the Baltimore Sun at the time. “We have to keep searching for answers.” (from ”Desperate’ Caps to try Carey in net,’ Baltimore Sun, 03/02/1995)

“I had three goalies, and each of them had one win,” Schoenfeld told Sports Illustrated in April. “At the time we called up Jim we had the lowest shooting percentage in the league and the lowest save percentage. Maybe you can have one [and be successful], but you can’t have both.”

Carey Shines to Help Caps Salvage Season

Carey helped the Capitals immediately, as Washington won its first road win of the year by beating Islanders 4-3 as he made 21 saves in his NHL debut. 

Washington then returned back to Landover and Carey bested his boyhood idol Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens with a 5-1 win on March 4.

The goaltender, who used the nickname “Ace” from “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” featuring the actor with nearly the same name, was also greeted on the USAir Arena’s telescreen with a clip from “The Mask” in which the actor shouts “SMOKIN!”

“It was pretty special,” he said after the game. “The Canadiens have always been my favorite team and Patrick Roy was my favorite goaltender.”

Washington’s win total for March matched the total before Carey’s arrival with a 4-2 win over the defending champion Rangers the following evening, in which Carey made 15 saves.

Carey then ran his mark to 4-0-0-0 when he beat the Bruins on March 7, where the goaltender returned to his hometown and was a game that turned out to be the Capitals’ last visit to the old Boston Garden. 

The goaltender who won a couple of state titles with Catholic Memorial on that same ice made 36 saves for the 3-1 win, allowing just an early goal to Ray Bourque.

“He’s making the critical saves,” Schoenfeld told the Washington Post. “There are key points in the game. The glove save he made on Bourque on the power play was a critical save. He had a blocker save on Neely right from the slot. These are players that score a lot of goals when their team needs them.” (from ‘CAREY, CAPITALS HOLD ON,’ Washington Post, 03/08/1995)

Carey earned a tie with the Ottawa Senators on March 10, then won a home-and-home with the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 12 and 13 to set his streak to seven games without a regulation loss (6-0-0-1).

Carey earned NHL Player of the Week honors for his efforts, posting a 1.41 goals-against average and a .939 SV%. He later won the NHL’s Player of the Month for March, the first rookie ever to have sole ownership of that honor.

He recognized his streak wasn’t usual, telling the Baltimore Sun, “You’ve just got to ride the wave. You don’t have streaks like this very often. I can attest to that. They don’t come along every day.”

Carey’s Success Burned Bright, But Faded Fast

Three nights later, Carey suffered his first regulation loss at the hands of the Florida Panthers, but that was one of the few setbacks Carey had his first two seasons. Thanks to the goaltender’s efforts, the Capitals got into the playoffs thanks to Carey’s 18-6-3 record, and the goaltender finished second in Calder Trophy voting and third in Vezina voting despite playing just over half a season. 

“You just sat back in awe watching what he was doing when he first came into the league,” Kolzig told The Hockey News in 2016. “I was a first-round pick who was still trying to get some traction as far as a pro career in the NHL was concerned. To see this kid come in and make it look like it was peewee hockey was frustrating for me.”

He also became a phenomenon league-wide, with the tie in with Jim Carrey, and was one of the top young goaltenders in the league. The following year, he won the Vezina Trophy, the first Capital ever to win the honor, going 35-24-9 with a .906 SV%. 

“The Jim Carrey movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was just out, and they used to play clips during stoppages in play,” former Capital Keith Jones told THN. “The fans really got into it in Washington, and the team did a really good job in terms of the production of everything around it. They really marketed him well.”

However, that was the highlight of Carey’s Washington career, as the next season he was dealt to Boston during a disappointing campaign as the Capitals acquired Adam Oates in a six-player blockbuster deal with the Bruins just a day shy of two years after Carey’s NHL debut in Uniondale on March 1, 1997. 

The Caps shipped off Carey, Anson Carter and Jason Alison and acquired Oates, Rick Tocchet and Bill Ranford to try and make the playoffs. However, David Poile’s gamble to trade three young players for veterans left him out as GM in Washington as the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 1981-82.

While Carter and Alison had solid NHL careers, Carey played just one full season in his hometown as Kolzig led Washington to their first Stanley Cup Final in 1997-98. Carey spent 1998-99 mostly in the minors, with his NHL career wrapping up with a handful of games for the St. Louis Blues in March of 1999, just four years after his stellar start with the Caps.

“I don’t think becoming an NHL player was something he looked at long term,” Kolzig said to THN two decades later. “It was more of a way to make a good salary and be able to set himself up for his post-hockey career. To each their own. I wouldn’t say he lived and died the game. He didn’t eat, sleep and breathe the game.

“I watched this kid come in, and I was in awe. I was also frustrated. You see this kid who has this incredible talent. He made it look so easy. If he really wanted it and loved the game, he probably could have had one hell of a career.”

Carey vs. Vanecek

Unlike Carey, Vanecek spent several years in the minors before making his NHL debut in Buffalo earlier this month, and while Carey was 20 when he made his debut, Vanecek is 25. Both were stellar at the AHL level, with Carey and Vanecek earning AHL All-Star honors during their time in the league, with Carey getting a nod in 1995 and Vanecek in 2019 and 2020.

They are similar in the high regard the organization had for him, as Carey was referred to as the future of the team’s goaltending hopes when he was called up, while the Caps also hold Vanecek in high regard, making him the backup during the playoff bubble last summer in Toronto.

Vitek Vanecek Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

But while Carey’s move was desperation, the Capitals this time around elected to bypass Craig Anderson and Pheonix Copley to make Vanecek the starter while Ilya Samsonov was ineligible to play. And both did a good job at helping the Caps pick up points in a shortened season.

Vanecek’s recent hot start brought back what a stellar display Carey had in his first season in Washington, delivering one of the most impressive goaltending displays seen in a Capitals uniform. And the Capitals hope that Vanecek has the same initial success without burning out as Carey did.

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