After having a week-long layoff due to the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres pausing their seasons, the Washington Capitals returned to action Sunday with their first full lineup since their last visit to Pittsburgh just under a month ago.
The first game out wasn’t what the Caps wanted, falling 6-3 to the Pittsburgh Penguins for the team’s fourth straight loss, and leaving Washington tied with the New York Islanders and Penguins for the last playoff spots in the East.
This return for the Capitals kicks off a key 20-game stretch, one with plenty of home games and one where Washington needs to avoid extending its skid. And the team will need to figure out its goaltending plan after Vitek Vanecek has struggled in his last four starts.
Despite having lost players to the COVID-19 protocols and injuries, Washington held its own before the week off, going 4-3-1 while four Russians landed on the NHL’s list.
In a season where points are at a premium, the Capitals more than held their own during the stretch, playing above their heads for the first five games of a short lineup, and then finally showing some wear into the three straight regulation losses that headed into the pause.
But, the misfortune of the Flyers and Sabres was to the Capitals’ benefit, and allowed an older team with a banged-up lineup to return healthy, and give the team a team with 43 games remaining a chance to solidify its playoff standing.
Vanecek Showing Cracks, Samsonov in Wings
Goaltending-wise, Vanecek has emerged as the team’s No. 1 starter, although he did show some fatigue towards the end of the games before the pause. He was pulled in the loss to Philadelphia, the final game before the pause, and he wasn’t much better in the team’s loss on Sunday.
Still, Vanecek started 10 straight for Washington, which is a pretty solid accomplishment when you have just a dozen games under your belt in the NHL.
However, some of the issues he had heading into the pause showed up in his game against the Penguins Sunday, as while he made some nice saves, he also let in some goals that needed to be stopped, and at one point allowed 4 goals on 18 shots. While he buckled down and didn’t allow a goal in the final 29 minutes of the contest, the damage was already done and Washington couldn’t erase a 4-2 deficit.
Vanecek has been good in the first games of his career, but the book on him seems to be getting out on how to beat the goaltender. With only seven different teams on the schedule this season – and Washington having played six of them already through 13 games – it will be key for Vanecek to adapt to the changes in the shooters’ tendencies.
As for Ilya Samsonov, who last appeared in a game on Jan. 17, should return to the Washington lineup soon after making a rehab appearance with the Hershey Bears on Sunday. He allowed 5 goals on 29 shots to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in an overtime loss at Giant Center.
Despite the numbers, Bears coach Spencer Carbery thought Samsonov was good in the loss.
“Probably the best five goals against I’ve ever seen as a coach in 11 years,” Carbery said afterward, according to Chocolate Hockey. “I thought that first period was the worst 20 minutes I’ve seen over the two years and a month I’ve been here … I felt terrible, and I’ll probably apologize to him later, for Sammy having not played in a month and to be thrown into a situation where he’s facing 15 Grade-A chances.”
With the Capitals next playing Tuesday in Pittsburgh, and the Bears playing Wednesday, Washington will have a choice to make in goal. The team doesn’t seem to have a lot of confidence in veteran backup Craig Anderson, although Pheonix Copley, who was Washington’s backup two seasons ago, could get another look if the team needs another rehab assignment.
Home Games Ahead
Washington also will get a chance to make a run with an extended number of home games, playing 13 of 18 scheduled games at home after Tuesday’s tilt in Pittsburgh. While Washington’s home dates will be sparse in April and May, the Caps can certainly try and embed themselves in a playoff spot with a good run over the next month.
For a team that has one of the highest numbers of man-games lost in the NHL, the Capitals are in a decent position as the shortened 2020-21 season enters its second month. They held their own when the lineup thinned out, and despite being off a week, still hold a playoff spot as most of the teams around them gained points.
The healthy lineup allows the Caps to reboot its season, and not have to worry about making up points to climb into a playoff spot like other teams with extended injuries and layoffs like the Sabres and New Jersey Devils.
Washington is entering a key stretch to try and keep themselves in a playoff spot, and despite the loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday, a strong 20-game stretch will go a long way to punching their ticket back to the playoffs.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.