Throughout 2021-22, inconsistency has framed the debate surrounding the Washington Capitals’ situation in net. Ilya Samsonov started the season in control of the crease but saw his status as the club’s starter slip away game-by-game.
Although Vitek Vanecek eventually displaced the Russian, Washington’s depth chart has been in constant flux ever since. The Capitals’ pending restricted free-agent (RFA) netminders have traded places under the watchful eye of head coach Peter Laviolette all year-long, with Samsonov recently recapturing the blue paint.
Heading into the playoffs, the Caps’ tandem remains the big talking point in D.C., with one question standing out: are Vanecek and Samsonov capable of guiding Washington on a deep playoff run?
Lars Eller Has Faith in Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov
According to forward Lars Eller, Laviolette’s players have confidence in their netminders.
“I can tell you this: all the players on the team have faith in Vitek and Sammy to elevate their game and to play their best when we need it,” Eller said on Thursday (21 April).
“The thing with playoff series is you don’t really need to play at your very best every single game… I know how that sounds, but you just need to take four out of seven.”
Fortunately for the Capitals, they’ve won four-in-seven more often than not this season. As noted by THW’s Carl Knauf, Laviolette’s squad is into their 11th seven-match span of the season. They’ve won at least four contests in six of those periods, winning at least three games during every stint.
Even during their post-COVID shutdown crisis, the Capitals played well enough to avoid being dragged out of contention. With the team finding their stride of late, the organization’s focus has shifted from damage control to inflicting damage of their own.
“There’s going to be games over the course of playoffs where you’re just not going to have it,” Eller explained. “You’re going to have an off game here or there but the games where you’re playing well, those are the games you need to win because there are going to be games where you just don’t have it and things aren’t going your way.”
Eller, who has 30 points in 68 appearances this season, believes both netminders have the ability to drag the Capitals past the first round.
“We’ve seen that both of those guys have that level, but it’s too much to ask to have it every single game. No one has that,” Eller added. “We just need four out of seven and we have all the faith that those two together, in combination, have what it takes.”
The question, then, is how should Laviolette approach netminder selection during the postseason: does the crease belong to Samsonov, Vanecek, or neither?
Ilya Samsonov’s Argument for the Starter’s Job in Washington
The argument for handing Samsonov the reins is relatively simple. His ceiling is higher than Vanecek’s, making him an attractive proposition heading into the playoffs.
However, the 25-year-old has been anointed “the guy” several times during his career in D.C. and has so far failed to take advantage. His form this season has been especially patchy, as illustrated by his recent performances against the Colorado Avalanche and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Samsonov was exceptional in Washington’s 3-2 win over Colorado earlier this week, stopping 24 of the 26 shots he faced. That said, he was chased from the net by the Maple Leafs in his previous start, allowing four goals on just 19 attempts.
Inconsistency is Samsonov’s issue, as exemplified by his last five starts:
|@ Vegas||20/04||3-4 OTL||.867||62:09|
|@ Colorado||18/04||3-2 W||.923||69:00|
|@ Toronto||14/04||7-3 L||.789||30:37|
On the season, his record is 37-10-5 with a .897 save percentage (SV%) and 2.99 goals-against average (GAA). Also of note: he’s conceded 11.2 goals above expected.
Vitek Vanecek’s Case for the Capitals’ Crease
Vanecek has outplayed Samsonov this year. He enters the final stretch with a 20-11-5 record on the season with a .910 SV% and 2.60 GAA.
The 26-year-old has saved 3.5 goals above expected while recording nine shutouts behind the Capitals’ leaky defence. Like Samsonov, though, he’s unreliable game-to-game – as his last five appearances have shown:
|@ Arizona||22/04||2-0 W||1.000||60:00|
|@ Montreal||16/04||8-4 W||.875||60:00|
|@ Toronto*||14/04||7-3 L||.769||29:23|
Vanecek has also received plenty of opportunities to establish himself as Washington’s first choice in net. He was handed the reins in March and briefly seized outright control of the crease, opening the month 6-0-0 with a shutout, .930 SV%, and GAA of 2.30.
However, the Czech goalie has struggled since March 20, upholding a .880 SV% through nine games. Samsonov hasn’t exactly dazzled over the past month either: his SV% sits at .881 across his last eight appearances. It’s therefore no surprise that Laviolette is still undecided on who his starting goaltender should be heading into the playoffs.
Is the Capitals’ Netminding Dilemma Overblown?
As a result, the Capitals have a difficult choice to make during the final week of the season: will they back Samsonov, Vanecek, or roll the dice on both? After tonight’s meeting with the Maple Leafs, Washington will only be three matches away from Game 1 of the playoffs.
- Wednesday, 27 April versus New York Islanders
- Friday, 29 April at New York Islanders
- Saturday, 30 April at New York Rangers
The Caps’ final day clash with the Rangers is the perfect opportunity to test drive the team’s presumptive starting goalie for the first game of the playoffs. Until then, it’s a waiting game to see whether Vanecek or Samsonov breaks out as the obvious number one choice.
Also of note: Washington’s situation in net isn’t unique. The Capitals aren’t the only playoff-bound team with unresolved tension between the pipes, just look at how Tristan Jarry’s injury has affected the Pittsburgh Penguins’ form recently.
While it isn’t ideal for Laviolette to have a selection dilemma to deal with before the playoffs, Washington’s tandem isn’t the disaster zone it’s often portrayed as. There are worse problems to be dealing with in the final week of the regular season than picking a starter from a pair of similarly performing netminders. Let’s just see how this all plays out come the postseason.
Advanced netminding statistics via hockey-reference.com
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.