After a busy offseason in the crease that saw the Washington Capitals holding onto their same young goaltending tandem, the team now has a starting netminder.
Vitek Vanecek will get the nod for Washington and start in the team’s season opener vs. the New York Rangers on Wednesday.
Head coach Peter Laviolette said the preseason and camp factored a lot into the decision, and that then plan is for both young netminders to still fight for their opportunity to be a No. 1.
“I thought it was really good. Separated himself a little bit. For that, he gets the opportunity to start and then the goalies will fight for the opportunity to play.”
He also added that he saw more consistency from the Czech goalie, who went 1-1-1 with a .914 save percentage and 2.50 GAA through three preseason games.
“I just think in camp that it was a little bit more steady… With that said, like I said, it’s a starting point and a long year,” Laviolette said. “I think just the consistency [was better]. Inside the games, inside practice, just a little bit more consistent.”
The Czech netminder drew in for Washington and made his unexpected NHL debut when Henrik Lundqvist’s season ended abruptly due to a heart condition that resulted in open-heart surgery and his retirement.
Vanecek is coming off a stellar rookie campaign, where he led all freshmen goalies in wins (21) and finished in the top 10 in both save percentage (.908) and GAA (2.69). HIs standout play earned him a permanent NHL gig. He got start the playoffs but suffered a torn hamstring that ended his run.
Vanecek’s summer was a “crazy” one, as he was taken by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft but traded back to Washington a week later following the Philipp Grubauer signing.
“I feel very good,” Vanecek said, adding, “I want to just be good in skating, get better in the skating. Because the NHL is so quick. If I be better in the skating, everything else will get easier.”
As for Samsonov, he’ll have to keep striving for his opportunity to start, especially after a difficult 2020-21 campaign.
The Russian goaltender is coming off a year stained by COVID-19, including one bout with the virus that made it difficult for him to walk and breathe. He ended up on protocol again down the stretch and missed quite a bit of time heading into the playoffs. Vanecek won the starting role for the playoffs but suffered an injury in Game 1 that ended his run. Samsonov returned and truly impressed in those final three playoff games for the Capitals against the Boston Bruins.
In 19 regular-season games last season, Samsonov went 13-4-1 with a .902 save percentage and 2.69 GAA. Through three postseason losses, he posted a .899 SV% and 2.99 GAA.
“He has to earn [starting job],” general manager Brian MacLellan said in the offseason. “He has the potential to be a No. 1, and I think he has to show it.”
In August, Washington inked Samsonov, who was an RFA, to a one-year, $2 million extension. The “prove it” deal should add some extra motivation, especially with the 24-year-old starting to open the campaign. Samsonov has never started more than three games in a row in his career.
“We have a good team, have the best team in the league,” Samsonov said. “I think we will go to much long, longer season than the last year.”
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Overall, the Capitals are confident in their last line of defense.
“I know how much [Vitek] cares… he’s a great goalie, so we’re really confident,” Tom Wilson said, adding, “I’m excited to get him back and have him pick up where he left off. And obviously, Sammy is a bright young player and at the end of the day, to win hockey games in the NHL, you got to have good goalies and they are. You know, we’re excited to have them back there, so they’ll do the job and just continue to get better and it’s a huge part of the game, you know goaltending, so it’ll be good.”
In the meantime, Vanecek is excited to keep maintaining a healthy competition and dynamic with his counterpart.
“We are just pushing each other, but in a good way,” Vanecek said. “I feel like we will play better… he’s a really good guy and we talking. It’s really fun with him, so we’ll just push each other.”