If a goaltender is stopping pucks like a starter, has the confidence of a starter, and is playing with the consistency of a starter, they should probably be a starting goalie. Through three appearances to open 2021-22, Vitek Vanecek of the Washington Capitals has ticked all of those boxes.
The 26-year-old Czech goalie, only 41 games into his NHL career, has put together quite the run to begin the new season. After 185 minutes in the Capitals’ crease, Vanecek has upheld an impressive .946 save percentage (SV%) and has conceded just 1.3 goals per game (GAA).
In a 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on 21 October, Vanecek thwarted 25 of 26 shots and looked comfortable throughout. Importantly, his performance against the Devils was the continuation of a trend: the 6-foot-2 goalie has a .982 SV% at five-on-five.
That said, Vanecek’s early season form is more impressive than it initially seems. He endured a torrid off-season, one that saw him overcome injury and ping-ponged between Washington and Seattle. A lot has changed since.
Resurgent Vitek Vanecek “Just Focusing On Hockey”
Vanecek’s turnaround has been rapid. At the start of pre-season, Ilya Samsonov was primed to begin the campaign with ownership of the crease. However, his Czech rival has since overtaken the Russian, conceding thrice in his only appearance so far, a 6-3 win over the Colorado Avalanche.
Even so, Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette has been impressed by his goalies to open 2021-22.
“Defensively, we’re not allowing too many shots and our goaltenders have stopped the ones they’ve needed to stop,” Laviolette said on Thursday. “What’s been good about the start [of the season]? Probably just the fact we’re 3-0-1.”
Vanecek, buoyed by his impressive start the season, was also upbeat after the Caps’ win in New Jersey.
“I’m trying my best to help the team,” the 26-year-old said. “I’ll always do that, and they help me a lot too. It’s nice to not concede in the first and second period[s]. But if you do, you just have to forget about it and just play and help the team.”
On his remarkable save from Jimmy Vesey, Vanecek said: “I wasn’t thinking about the goal, I was just focused on the next play. They made a cross [ice pass] and brought it back, and I just tried to stay with [Vesey] as much as possible. And I made the save, so it was good. I’m just focusing on the hockey.”
Vitek Vanecek Is Rising to the Challenge
Although it’s still too early to draw any firm conclusions about where Vanecek’s season is headed, he is making progress. Against the Devils, he controlled rebounds effectively and looked comfortable dealing with shots aimed at his blocker and glove sides.
Vanecek’s save on Vesey is a definite highlight. First, he had to stay in the play – moving from post to post and back again to keep pace with the Devils’ attack. Then he had to stretch his left leg wide, keep it pinned to the ice, and corral the puck until the referee’s whistle came.
After his performance against New Jersey, Vanecek has made the Capitals’ crease his own. He’s playing with confidence, unencumbered by the inconsistencies that plagued his game last term, and has earned the trust of his teammates. For now, at least.
However, with Washington’s tandem of Vanecek and Samsonov, it’s worth remembering that highs and lows are part of the package. Throughout 2020-21, the Caps’ netminders performed slightly beneath the NHL average.
Moreover, Vanecek’s form was particularly streaky. According to @Devils_Data’s model, the Czech stopper was Washington’s least consistent goalie – although, to his credit, he did also turn in the team’s best single-game goalie performance of the season.
As a result, Vanecek’s impressive start to the season mustn’t be regarded as evidence that he is the finished article. He isn’t. But he’s on the right track and is doing everything in his power to help the Capitals succeed.
I’m sorry, Mr. Samsonov, but it’s Vitek’s net for now.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.