Reirden and Capitals Search for Plan B in Goal

Todd Reirden always has a plan.

And although the Washington Capitals’ head coach usually is not particularly forthcoming with the details of his plans, you can be assured that they have been thoroughly researched, very well thought out and meticulously analyzed. He’s a details person who is looking for any edge that he can provide for his team.

Need evidence?

The Caps’ July 24 intra-squad scrimmage, which would be their final simulated game action before heading to the bubble in Toronto, started at 4:00 P.M. Guess what time Washington’s July 29 pre-tournament exhibition game against the Carolina Hurricanes starts? And their first round-robin game against the Tampa Bay Lightning Aug. 3? You guessed it, 4:00 P.M.

Adapting to NHL Playoff Schedule

Now, how many 4:00 P.M. starts do you think Washington had during the regular season? The answer is none. The Caps played in nine afternoon tilts, including two that started at 5:00 P.M., but had no 4:00 P.M. faceoffs.

See where this is going?

Todd Reirden Washington Capitals
Todd Reirden, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“That’s why we’re doing it that way,” Reirden told the media after a practice leading up to the final scrimmage. “We’re going to do a dry run-through with the timing. We’re going to do an actual warm-up, then they’re going to go off the ice and they’re going to clean the ice. We’re going to do our meetings that we normally would do most times, so that the first time they’re doing it isn’t necessarily against Carolina in an exhibition. We need to build a routine, and 4:00 is a different type of time.”

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Reirden opened up a little more about the method to his madness following the scrimmage. With rookie goaltender Ilya Samsonov unable participate in Phase 3 training camp to that point – he would later be ruled out of the postseason completely with an undisclosed injury – and Reirden already having handed the starting job to veteran Braden Holtby, the coach wanted to give his former Stanley Cup-winning netminder every opportunity to acclimate himself to the routine that awaits once the games begin in Toronto.

Holtby a Creature of Habit

Holtby is famous for his game-day rituals, attention to detail and need for a structured routine to be at his mental and physical peak when the puck drops. Reirden is well aware of Holtby’s approach and wanted to give the player his team hopes to ride deep into the postseason an opportunity to figure out what works best for him under the conditions he will be facing once play resumes.

Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby
Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The 10-year veteran was on top of his game in leading the Caps to their first Stanley Cup championship in 2018, and his play this summer after an inconsistent regular season will have a huge impact on how far they go this year. Also keeping that in mind, Reirden stacked the teams in the scrimmage so Holtby would face Washington’s top-three lines.  

“We purposely set the lineup the way we did,” Reirden said. “We wanted to give him a lot of action – let him stay in there the whole time – and he was really solid. That was important. He was a large consideration in why (the scrimmage) even occurred to be quite candid. With a 4:00 game like this, it’s a different situation for a guy like him. He’s very routine, likes certain things at certain times. We did our meetings. We did TV timeouts, and we did it pretty much as detailed as we could to prepare him, but also to prepare the other players. I thought he responded really well.”

Samsonov Ruled Out

Holtby was solid in leading his team, which essentially consisted of fourth, fifth and sixth liners, to victory over the Caps’ big guns. The extra work he got – and Reirden’s extensive planning to get him comfortable before heading to Toronto – turned out to be even more important when Samsonov officially was ruled out of the playoffs the following day.

It’s a guy who is a really good player, a really good young prospect for us. So for us not to have him with us is disappointing. I thought he made some strides and put together a really good first year for us … The right thing to do is leave him here and allow him to get treatment so that he is ready to go next year when we have the opportunity to start playing hockey again.

Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden speaking at a media session
Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Reirden later told reporters that he likely would have taken four goalies to Toronto had Samsonov been healthy, but instead two-time American Hockey League All-Star Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley, a veteran of 29 NHL appearances with a 16-8-3 career record, will round out Washington’s postseason goaltending triumvirate.

Reirden Preparing for Anything

So now it’s back to the drawing board for Reirden, who will turn his deep thoughts to continuing along a path toward ensuring Holtby is at the top of his game when things get real Aug. 3 while also figuring out what the best Plan B is if something happens to his starter. He also will want to make sure the backup goalie is as prepared as possible if unexpectedly thrust into action.

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“We are preparing for situations,” Reirden said. “Whatever happens here day to day we want to make sure that we’re covering all bases that we can and making sure that we’re prepared if either of those two are put in to play. It’s important for us to do that, and it allows them to get some individual work with (goaltending coach) Scott Murray.”

The coach hasn’t shed much light on his thought process in regards to who will be the backup other than to say he has confidence in both players. Team members have echoed that sentiment

Winnipeg Jets Adam Lowry Washington Capitals Pheonix Copley
Pheonix Copley, Washington Capitals (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

“Copley, when he was up here before, he did great,” center Lars Eller told the media the day Samsonov was ruled out. “We’re going to miss Sammy, but I feel good about the guys we have in net.”

Assistant captain Nicklas Backstrom was a little more stoic in his appraisal.

(Samsonov) had a terrific year, but at the same time he got hurt. That’s the way it is; we can’t control it now. We have a big roster, and if something happens to (Holtby), like we always say, it’s time for someone else to step up then.

Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom addressing the media

Will it Be Copley or Vanecek?

But who is most likely to step up? Reirden has spoken glowingly of Vanecek’s upside and performance at the AHL level. He similarly has mentioned his comfort level with Copley and what the team’s former backup has shown at the NHL level.

Vitek Vanecek Hershey Bears
Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Reirden said he would like to get one of the two backups into the game for the third period of the exhibition against Carolina, so that may be the first real indication of the direction he is leaning. He also has made it clear that it is important for Holtby to play and settle into a routine, making it unlikely that one of the reserves would see action once round-robin play begins.

With the way the games are spaced out for us, there’s quite a bit of time between that Game 2 and Game 3. I think it’s really important for (Holtby) to stay in game action and a rhythm, so we’ll take it day by day with all these things.

Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden

Of course, the situation can change in a hurry. A bad defensive performance or poor showing by Holtby could lead to an in-game substitution, and there could be an injury or even a positive COVID-19 test.

It’s up to Reirden to figure out which goalie is the best fit no matter what circumstances arise. Maybe Copley’s NHL experience makes him the choice to be on the bench and ready to go into a game at a moment’s notice, while Vanecek’s potential as an NHL starter makes him a better longer-term pick to start if Holtby is injured.

“So much can change, as we know,” Reirden said. “Just because we are going into the bubble or the hub city doesn’t necessarily mean some of these issues are gone now. There’s still daily testing and everything that goes into making our players available or not available … We’re making adjustments and adapting to the unpredictable and doing all we can to give ourselves a chance to win.”