Almost halfway through the 2021-22 campaign, the Washington Capitals are still looking for their No. 1 netminder as Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek share the crease. However, Tuesday could be a major difference-maker in that race as the Capitals look to put an end to a slide that has moved them into Wild Card position in the East — and Vanecek will be the man in net.
Vanecek will get the call against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, and if he makes the most of his start, he could very well take over control of the crease — at least for now.
The 26-year-old netminder hasn’t played too much over the last month, with COVID-19 protocol and a nasty bout with the flu holding him out of the lineup for a bit. However, he said he’s starting to feel good since coming back, and he posted a 23-save shutout vs. the Islanders back on Saturday. And in his last five games overall, Vanecek has also put up a couple of solid showings, including an impressive 40-save effort against the Jets back on Dec. 17.
“I felt pretty good before COVID. I was feeling comfortable,” Vanecek said.
The Czech netminder also said getting back in the swing of things was a bit of a process, but he has been able to get his breathing back
Head coach Peter Laviolette said last week that the team has been seeking more consistency from their netminders, especially given the team’s recent struggles.
“I think that’s what we’re looking for. There’s been games when they’ve been really good, and games where you’re just looking for a little bit more consistency,” Laviolette explained. “But again, they’re young players. I think that happens with young players. But you’re looking for that consistency in somebody to grab hold of it.”
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Washington has won just one of its last six games and has dropped from the top of the Metro Division down to a Wild Card spot. The team is still seeking solutions and better play all over the ice, from generating more traffic and offense to better play in the neutral zone. However, sharp goaltending is also important, especially when it comes to not surrendering “soft” goals or even helping on the penalty kill.
“At the end of the day, the goalie has to be your best penalty killer, so a lot comes down to you know, ‘Is he going to make that extra save on that rebound or the other four guys going to clear the rebound?’ It’s really almost like… more like a five-guy penalty kill I guess. But I think we have trust in our structure. We have trust in each other,” Lars Eller said of the PK.
Against New York, Vanecek was tracking pucks well, relying on athleticism and working to control the tempo. The defense also didn’t give up much and didn’t allow the Islanders to really get enough time and space to get things going. But, when they did, Vanecek came up big with the pad and also handled rebounds well.
If he and the blue line can keep that going — and also recapture that strong play from last month against the Jets — Vanecek has a real chance to establish himself and earn more starts. And for him, it couldn’t come at a better time, especially with the trade deadline looming and veteran goaltenders likely available — and potentially on the team’s radar.