ARLINGTON, V.A. — Since 2019, a lot has changed for Washington Capitals goaltender Pheonix Copley. Amid a global pandemic and a tough goalie competition, the 30-year-old has evolved over three years. He appears more confident, more resolved as he discusses getting back on track to the NHL.
And while staring out at the rink he’s waited so long to return to, Copley admits there was a point where he feared not getting another call-up, especially following his early cut at training camp back in October.
“For sure, frustration sets in,” the Alaska native admitted. “I felt good at training camp. I always felt like I battled hard and I thought I’ve shown my ability to play in this league. Unfortunately for two, almost three years, it didn’t happen.”
Now, that’s all changing amid more trouble between the pipes, as both — and he sees a major opportunity to prove he belongs in the NHL after earning another call-up following the All-Star break with both Vanecek and Samsonov absent from Monday’s optional skate.
A lot has changed for the North Pole, Alaska native since 2019. Almost three years ago, he had finally earned a promotion as a full-time NHL, backing up Braden Holtby. However, the rise of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, as well as the success of Zach Fucale, moved him down on the depth chart.
While disappointed, Copley made his way back to Hershey with his head held high. He used that disappointment to his advantage, and also relied on his support system, which included his fiancé and goalie coach Alex Westlund.
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In turn, a rejuvenated Copley found a spark in his game and started to get into a rhythm with the Bears. Through 22 games, Copley is 13-7-2 with a 2.43 GAA and .909 save percentage. Over his last six games, he has been outstanding with a .944 save percentage and 143 saves on 152 shots.
“My mindset when I was going through all that was to use the frustration as a tool and work a little,” Copley noted, adding, “I like working with Westy… he’s been a great mentor, a great goalie coach. I consider myself lucky to get to work with him, and he’s been a big part of my development.
“It’s been a lot of fun down there. I’m really enjoying myself on the ice. My mentality was just trying to play my game when I had the chance,” Copley added.
Copley finally got his chance to return to the NHL level when Vitek Vanecek suffered an upper-body injury on Tuesday against Pittsburgh. The original plan was to back up Ilya Samsonov for the final game before the All-Star Break against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers. However, he found himself quickly thrust into the throes of NHL action for the first time in over two years after Samsonov surrendered three goals on four shots through the first 5:07 minutes of play.
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Despite the time away, Copley didn’t lose a step and put on a show. He stopped 21 of 22 shots and kept Washington in the game until a fluky shorthanded goal and empty-netter sealed a 5-3 victory for Edmonton.
“Always got to be ready. That’s kind of just the nature of the position,” Copley explained. “A guy goes down and next thing you know, you’re getting a call. So it’s just kind of the nature of being a goalie.”
Going forward, Copley isn’t changing his mindset, but he is hoping to change the perception of himself as a full-time NHL goalie. And no matter if he’s starting or not, he believes that with the right consistency and work ethic, he will get more time up with the Capitals.
“I got the chance, and my goal is to keep continuing to prove that I can play at this level,” Copley said, adding, “Every time I get a chance out there, I want to prove that I’m capable of playing a lot of games and I’m capable of [sticking with it]. That’s always my mindset when I get the chance and hopefully, that’ll be soon.”