As the Washington Capitals took the ice for an optional morning skate in Sunrise, Vitek Vanecek made his way to the starter’s net, which will be his home base to open the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After much debate and conversation, head coach Peter Laviolette revealed his decision for his starting netminder for Game 1, choosing the Czech netminder over Ilya Samsonov to open the series against the top-seeded Florida Panthers.
“Vitek starts tonight,” Laviolette said, adding, “I think both goaltenders have had points in the year where they’re really good. Vitek’s body of work has been just a little bit stronger but it’s close.”
Both Samsonov and Vanecek got 39 starts each over the course of the 2021-22 regular season. While both of them had hot stretches and time to prove their worth, neither was able to run away with sole possession of the No. 1 job.
Vanecek, who was thought to have won the starting role at the trade deadline and took a step back down the stretch, finished the year with a .908 save percentage and an even-better .926 SV% at 5-on-5, good for 10th among goalies with at least 20 games played. Samsonov ended the regular season with a .892 SV% (.904 at 5-on-5).
The 26-year-old sophomore had earned the starting job for the previous year’s playoffs when the Capitals went up against the Boston Bruins but was injured roughly 13 minutes into Game 1 on Boston’s first goal of the night. That hamstring injury sidelined him for 12 weeks and, in turn, the 2021 postseason that saw Washington suffer a third consecutive first-round exit.
Laviolette is looking forward to seeing what the netminder can do with his second opportunity, considering the team didn’t get to truly see him in NHL playoff action yet.
“Vitek we gave the start to last year, and it didn’t go the way he wanted or as planned with regard to that,” Laviolette mentioned. “But the body of work that he had this year just earns him the nod for Game 1.”
Still, the Czech netminder will be in for a challenge. Florida has a heavyweight offense that features Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Anthony Duclair and Claude Giroux, along with Aaron Ekblad and other key contributors across the lineup.
Washington knows that the play will have to be good in front of Vanecek and that the team needs to avoid a run-and-gun style of play against the Panthers and take good care of the puck while tightening up in the neutral zone.
“I think the key is playing in the O-zone. Smart puck decisions, really just not get turnovers. They are obviously an offensive team,” T.J. Oshie said. “They know how to create offense. So we just got to be hard defensively and not give them any free offense. Not turn over unnecessary pucks and kind of feed onto their transition.”
Sergei Bobrovsky will get the nod in net for the Cats. Puck drop is at 7:30 p.m. ET at FLA Live Arena.