WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just a few weeks ago at the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline, the Washington Capitals elected to stop working the phones and looking for a netminder. Instead, general manager Brian MacLellan felt confident in his two young goaltenders in Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek entering the playoffs, especially with Vanecek taking over and getting into a rhythm as the starter. However, things have since taken a turn, and now, the spot is up for the taking — and Samsonov has gotten a major chance to take a step forward.
With Vanecek’s numbers declining toward the end of March, head coach Peter Laviolette said that he wanted one goalie to emerge as the No. 1 with the regular season winding down. In turn, both would get starts down the stretch, meaning Samsonov would have the chance to draw back in between the pipes.
Starting on April 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Capitals’ first game since having “players-only” meetings to address their inconsistency, Samsonov got the call from Laviolette to show what he could do. He made some big-time saves in that game against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions en route to a 4-3 win. And after that, Laviolette gave Samsonov more games.
READ MORE ON WHN: Takeaways As Vanecek, Sheary Help Capitals Keep Coyotes At Bay
Since April 6, Samsonov has started six of the team’s nine games, and his 330:45 minutes in net rank 11th among all goalies over this stretch. He is 4-1-1 over that span with a .855 save percentage and 3.27 GAA, along with some big-time wins against top teams like Tampa and the top-ranked Colorado Avalanche. Although those numbers aren’t the best on paper, the 25-year-old looks more confident and alert in the crease. He has made quite a few big saves, including a couple of ones for the highlight reel.
“He’s been great,” T.J. Oshie said of No. 30. “I think there were some struggles there. Maybe some injury stuff going on, and he’s worked hard in practice. You see a different intensity from him that I think we saw at points this season, to where he’s really working to get back in the net and do well for us. So, I know what it was for a young guy when maybe you’re not playing your best. Not playing as much as you’d like. For him to come out here and just work hard and get some wins and play solid for us back there, it’s very mature and we’re happy for him. It’s still a long ways to go, but he’s making some strides for us.”
CAPITALS FUN TIMES: Capitals Give Ovechkin Axe, Standing Ovation For Hitting 50 Yet Again
Still, in comparison to Vanecek, though, it’s tough to see where Samsonov stands. Vanecek has played in four games — starting three — and while his numbers are better on paper, they’re not that much better than Samsonov’s, nor is his play as good. Both have had their moments and goals that they’d like to have back, as well as inconsistency. Vanecek boasted a .904 save percentage over that span and did have some strong games, including one against the Boston Bruins and a shutout against the last-place Arizona Coyotes. However, he surrendered four goals against the struggling Montreal Canadiens back on April 16.
At all strengths over this final stretch, Samsonov has 39 high-danger saves (10th among goaltenders), while Vanecek has 27. However, Samsonov has faced more rebound attempts against with 24 (sixth among all goalies), while Vanecek has faced 19. Also, at 5-on-5, Vanecek has the better stats, with a .857 SV% compared to Samsonov’s .816 SV%. Looking at their play, the rebound control could be better for both and they each have experienced quite a few close calls. Samsonov has also dropped the stick a couple of times over the last few games.
Washington has four games left in the regular season, with each goalie likely to split them down the middle. It’s still to be seen who will get the call as the Capitals prepare for a tough first-round matchup with the surging top-seed Florida Panthers.