WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the Washington Capitals take off for Sunrise to face the Florida Panthers in the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they do so without a definitive full-time starting netminder. And right now, that appears to be the best — and only — option.
The Capitals have relied on their young tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek over the last two seasons, and though both have had their share of hot streaks, neither has been able to maintain consistency or prove their worth as a full-time No. 1 heading into the postseason.
When asked about the Game 1 starter, head coach Peter Laviolette wasn’t open about who he would go with to open the series. In fact, he was blunt with regard to the team’s expectations and what he has seen from Washington’s goaltenders so far.
“It hasn’t happened,” Laviolette said of one goalie taking control. “But yet, like I’ve said, a 100-point season, we’ve been able to find success with [two goalies]. They are two young goaltenders that are pushing every day. They’ve had success with our team.”
Right now, Samsonov and Vanecek are the two main options, with Zach Fucale serving as the third goalie in case of emergency. Each young netminder finished the year with 39 starts apiece, with Vanecek having the better numbers and even appearing to take over the starting role prior to the trade deadline. Vanecek managed a .908 save percentage, while Samsonov boasted a .892 SV% to close out the year.
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After the deadline, though, where the Capitals elected to stand pat when it came to acquiring a goalie, Vanecek’s play declined, and the race opened back up. Both goalies had the opportunity to claim control of the crease with equal starts down the stretch, but neither could capitalize.
“I don’t know if it surprises me, that’s where we are at right now,” Laviolette added about his situation between the pipes. “Like I said, that’s how we’ve found success. And so, we’ve relied on both goaltenders. We’re going to count on both goaltenders.”
For now, Laviolette is keeping his starter “close to the vest” and will announce before Game 1 after the morning skate who he is going with. The bench boss wants to see better play in front of both netminders, who still have work to do when it comes to positioning, rebound control and tracking the puck.
“I think both of them are good. I have no idea who is going to start,” Nicklas Backstrom noted. “Both of them are talented. It looks like they are both excited to get going in the playoffs here. So we’ll see what happens.”
Ultimately, quality goaltending will be vital for Washington against a high-flying team like Florida that features an arsenal of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Anthony Duclair and new acquisition Claude Giroux. The Panthers, who clinched their first Presidents’ Trophy this season, led the league in goals-for-per-game (4.11) and finished with the fifth-best power play in the league (24.4).
“For goalie, it’s important to know that he’s the first goalie, right? So he can focus on his game or that stuff. I like both of those guys. They young and reckless a little bit sometimes. But at the same time, whoever play, we feel confident,” Evgeny Kuznetsov said back in April. “We trust them and we all make mistakes sometimes, right? It’s just about how we’re going to support them when they make mistakes.”