Capitals Have 6 Games to Decide on a Playoff Goaltender

With the Washington Capitals having officially clinched a Stanley Cup playoff berth with their overtime loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday night, and the MassMutual East Division’s four likely playoff qualifiers being pretty evenly matched, the most important thing for the team to look for in their final six regular-season games is which goaltender will be getting the start in the playoffs.

Neither Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek have any Stanley Cup playoff experience heading into May, but one of those two will be needed to be terrific for Washington to try and win its second Stanley Cup title in three years. While Capitals coach Peter Laviolette is familiar with having young goalies in the playoffs — he won the 2006 Stanley Cup title with the Carolina Hurricanes thanks to a rookie named Cam Ward — it’s a gamble to have a pair of goaltenders in the pressure cooker of the playoffs without any previous experience.

Both goaltenders have had highs and lows this season, and both have something to prove for now and for the future. As Washington looks more and more likely to find a way to protect T.J. Oshie from the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, the possibility is rising that the team could lose one of their two young goalies to the Kraken, as either netminder could bring youth and talent to an expansion club.

Laviolette also knows that the team will need to decide one way or the other which young goalie Washington will hook its playoff hopes to down the stretch.

“We’ve got to name a starter,” Laviolette said last week. “We’re hoping, anyway, it’s going to be a long spring into summer, and I’m pretty sure we’ll need all of our players… so I think it’s important that they both play well. But there’s no question that our eyes are open right now with regard to the goaltending position.” (from ‘Capitals see end of regular season as ‘great opportunity’ for goaltenders to make a case,’ Washington Post, 04/25/2021)

Ilya Samsonov

Samsonov gets a second chance to take the Capitals’ starting role for the postseason, as while he had a shot to unseat Braden Holtby heading into the Toronto bubble in 2020, a reported ATV injury during the pause caused him to miss the entire playoffs and a shot to wrest away the starting role. Given a chance to be the Capitals’ starter this season, Samsonov was put on the COVID-19 list less than a week into the campaign and suffered lasting effects due to the ailment, and saw Vanecek play well in his absence.

Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov gets another shot at being the postseason starter this spring. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

But Samsonov has recovered nicely down the stretch, going 11-3 since the beginning of March, although he has also featured some highs and lows during that time frame, either being spectacular at times, or being ordinary at others.

To begin April, Samsonov turned in three sub-par performances, allowing 14 goals in three games at the New York Islanders and the New Jersey Devils and home against the Boston Bruins, all games with a combined save percentage (SV%) of just .853. But since then, he has recorded four straight wins, including a shutout of the Islanders on April 22.

Against Washington’s three potential playoff opponents, Samsonov has been adequate, but not spectacular. He has seen the Islanders most of any of the three clubs, going 3-1 with an .896 SV% and a 2.63 goals-against average (GAA) and the shutout. He has seen the Bruins twice this year, once coming off the bench, and posted an .872 SV% and a loss. The Pittsburgh Penguins he has seen only once this season so far, making 24 saves in a 4-3 shootout loss back on January 17, just before he went on the list.

At times, Samsonov can steal games with spectacular saves. Other times, he can let in some shoulder-slumping goals, which can be fatal come playoff time. Washington certainly will need the former to have any shot at going deep in the postseason.

Samsonov is also an interesting case for the long term for the Capitals. His entry-level contract expires after this season, and certainly will command a raise from his $925,000 salary he currently gets. With a Capitals team tight against the cap, would the Capitals opt to expose an unknown quantity in terms of salary to Seattle and protect Vanecek, who has one more year on his entry-level deal and for just a $725,000 cap hit?

While Samsonov seems the more likely of the two to get the starting nod due to his pedigree with the organization, it’s also not a done deal.

Vitek Vanecek

While Vanecek didn’t appear to even be ticketed for Washington come the end of last offseason, he took advantage of a chance to crack the roster and made the most of it. The Capitals wouldn’t have locked up a playoff spot so early without the strong play of Vanecek, who stepped in once Samsonov was put on the COVID-19 list and played spectacularly.

Vitek Vanecek Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek made the most of his chance to play in the NHL this season. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

Vanecek went 5-0-2 in January, and posted a .918 SV% for the month, and played in 13 consecutive games for Washington. While he showed some fatigue at the end of that stretch, and while his numbers have dipped somewhat since, he still has at least a .900 SV% for each month this season — something Samsonov doesn’t have. Vanecek has been a bit more consistent with his play, and while he may not make the spectacular save that Samsonov sometimes can, he also doesn’t usually allow too many bad goals, either.

While Vanecek’s relative anonymity helped him early on, some shooters have caught on to some of his tendencies, which he will need to correct. Vanecek has a tendency to drop down on shots quite a bit — more often than necessary and shots where he probably doesn’t need to go low — and opponents have caught on to this. Several goals allowed in recent games were from opponents taking a high shot on the netminder as he drops. As more tape gets around of his performances, and when the teams the Capitals will face see him live, he will have to adjust to the shooters more to avoid getting beat on these types of play.

Against Washington’s potential opponents, one that stands out is his play against the Islanders — Vanecek has gone 3-1 against New York, with a .938 SV% and a 1.89 GAA along with a shutout of his own. Should Washington draw the Islanders, that could be a consideration for Laviolette. Against Boston, Vanecek is 3-3 with an .897 SV%, and against the Penguins is 2-1-3 with an .896 SV%.

Vanecek has slightly more of a playoff feel than Samsonov, having played one period in the exhibition of the bubble in Toronto last July, and was on the bench backing up Holtby for the Capitals’ eight playoff games.

He also posted a 2.25 GAA and a .935 SV% in the 2019 Calder Cup playoffs, outperforming Samsonov’s .899 SV% during that same playoff run. Both netminders played during the Hershey Bears’ run, with Vanecek earning a second star in a season-saving Game 4 at Giant Center against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, and Samsonov in net for the win-or-go-home Game 5 victory two nights later.

Vanecek is probably the safer option for Laviolette, as he probably can deliver a steadier performance but perhaps without the spectacular saves his counterpart can deliver. Is that enough to deliver a series win against one of the East’s top teams?

Washington’s Calculated Gamble

While the veteran-laden Capitals feature a formidable offense and a reworked defense as compared to the last two versions of the Washington teams that bowed out in the first round of the playoffs, the goaltending from their 20-somethings is likely what will make or break this year’s club.

While originally the Capitals signed Henrik Lundqvist as a veteran presence to act as a mentor for the young goalies, they will rely on the leadership of taxi squad goaltender Craig Anderson, who has only appeared in three games this season and hasn’t appeared in a playoff game since the Ottawa Senators’ run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017. They also have Pheonix Copley in the system, who will likely be up with Washington once the Hershey Bears’ season ends on May 16, but he has not appeared in an NHL game since being Holtby’s backup in 2018-19, and never in a Stanley Cup playoff game.

More likely than not, Samsonov could get the nod for the playoffs, since he came into the season as the No. 1 goaltender with the expectation that he gets the nod for the future. However, either goalie may find a quick hook if they struggle out of the gate. Certainly both goalies aren’t used to the playoff pressure, and both goaltenders will face shooters familiar with their tendencies after facing them for parts of eight games apiece.

While Laviolette has experience with young goalies in the postseason, with a high-end team built to try and win a Stanley Cup, Washington hopes that the goaltending isn’t a weak link. Samsonov has potential to pay off, but he also could put the team in a big hole if he can’t perform up to expectations. Vanecek is the more consistent netminder, but one who also could be vulnerable against a team like Boston or Pittsburgh with skilled shooters who can spot weaknesses in a goaltender’s game.

Either way, Washington hopes a clear choice emerges as the regular season comes to a close, and that at least one of their young netminders is up for the challenge.

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