WASHINGTON, D.C. — Washington Capitals netminder Vitek Vanecek has been a man on a mission.
The Czech netminder’s sophomore campaign has been an interesting one. Not only has he dealt with injuries and hot streaks mixed in wiwth some tough times, but there have also been rumblings that the Capitals were looking to add a veteran goaltender with Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov still finding their way at the NHL level.
That being said, he has made quite the case that he can be a full-time No. 1 as he ascends up the NHL leaderboard. Over 27 games this season, Vanecek is 12-7-5 with a .921 save percentage (10th-best in the league) and 2.25 GAA, which ranks sixth.
“That can give you some confidence out there,” head coach Peter Laviolette said of Vanecek’s strong play of late. “I think Vitek has looked really good. His last eight to 10 games before the injury, he was right on point and playing extremely well for us. Then he comes out of that and now he’s gone for, whatever it was, three weeks, four weeks. So he’s off the ice and he’s not competing and h’e stepped away from that. You’ve got to get back to that and it’s nice to see him jump in… he’s looked really strong.”
The 26-year-old had been starting to get into a rhythm in January, but on Feb. 1, he suffered an upper-body injury that held him out for weeks. However, Vanecek has since returned and picked up right he left off. In his last nine games overall, Vanecek has stopped 244 of 256 shots, good for a .953 save percentage. He also has two shutouts in his last five games overall.
“He’s playing really well. He’s battling out there. You can tell he’s working really hard, he’s positionally sound, he’s swallowing up pucks, he’s good on second rebounds and third rebounds,” Tom Wilson noted. “As a team, when you see the guy battling in there, it can create momentum, and it can create confidence. And I think we feel that from Vitek right now.”
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Not only has Vanecek been playing well, but he is coming up with clutch saves and moving well in the crease. He is tracking the puck well and utilizing his flexibility and agility to get across and make highlight-reel plays and stops.
“You can kind of build off those big saves,” Conor Sheary noted. “I think he’s obviously a young goalie in the league, but he plays with a lot of confidence. He’s a little bit undersized, maybe, but his quickness just makes up for that. It’s fun to watch. It’s fun when he backstops us and makes big saves and gives us some momentum.”
Vanecek said that he felt good at the start of the season and personally felt his play take a bit of a hit in December before bouncing back in January. And although the injury held him out a bit, Vanecek said he was able to get back in the swing with practice and more time back in net.
“The body will tell you [how long recovery will take],” Vanecek said. “For goalies, it’s a little bit different. You have to track the puck and everything. So the eyes is a little bit slower, too, in the game. But when you get used to it, like first and second period, you start feeling much better after that.”
He also credited strong play from his teammates in front of the net, as well as blocked shots, for his success, trying to redirect the attention away from just him.
“It feels good, you’re trying to get back,” Vanecek noted. “Just trying to help the team.”
However, despite his modesty, No. 41 had been one of the top reasons why the Capitals were able to break out of a recent tough stretch and pick up vital back-to-back wins with the playoff push in full gear and the Columbus Blue Jackets looming in the Eastern Conference standings. With both victories, the Capitals were able to move 11 points in front of CBJ, giving them much-needed breathing room.
“He’s playing really well, and when you’ve got a guy competing like that back there, it gives you a chance to win, and we’ve got to take care of the other end of the ice,” Wilson added.