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Control Of The Crease: Have Capitals Found Full-Time Starter In Vanecek?

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Capitals goalie Vitek Vanecek

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s only two games in, but sophomore Vitek Vanecek is making quite the statement for the Washington Capitals.

Through two starts, including a stellar performance in the 5-1 season-opening win over New York, Vanecek has a .938 save percentage and 1.44 GAA.

“He’s been really solid… without him [vs. Tampa], it could’ve been a different game,” Justin Schultz said. “Yeah, he’s been unbelievable.”

Coming off a wild summer where he was taken by Seattle in the 2021 expansion draft then traded back to Washington a week later, Vanecek was prepared to compete for the starting role. That was — and remains — the expectation as the season continues, with Vanecek going head-to-head with Ilya Samsonov for the No. 1 role. Samsonov has a lot to prove this season as well, especially after signing a one-year “prove it” deal this offseason.

“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.”

Over the course of training camp, Vanecek impressed, moving well in the crease and displaying quick reflexes while always keeping track of the puck. He also had a strong showing through the preseason, going 1-1-1 with a .914 save percentage and 2.50 GAA. It led head coach Peter Laviolette to give him the starting role to open the season, with the expectation that he’d have to continue battling to maintain his role.

“I just think in camp that it was a little bit more steady… 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.”

READ MORE ON WHN: Vanecek Reflects on ‘Crazy’ Summer, Journey Back To Capitals From Seattle

One solidifying test for him so far was his performance against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was his first out-of-division matchup, as well as the team’s first time facing the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions since August 2020 in the playoff bubble.

Vanecek came in clutch on multiple occasions as the Capitals surrendered a number of high-quality chances after turnovers and tough reads in front. Vanecek robbed the likes of Brayden Point from in tight, while also coming up with huge saves on surefire chances from Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and more.

Going back to his most recent performance on Saturday, Vanecek came up huge, denying Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and more on grade-A chances. Those clutch stops are a result of confidence and skill that’s been fueling the Czech minder to open 2021-22 and ultimately may lead him to win the full-time starting role for the Capitals.

“He’s certainly done his job. He gives us a chance to win and he’s made some big saves,” Laviolette said of Vanecek’s performance.

Washington faces the offense-driven Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday. It’s unclear whether or not Vanecek will start his third-straight game; Laviolette reiterated that the current lineup is still not set in stone, and the expectation is for both Vanecek and Samsonov to continue battling for the crease. However, riding the hot goalie may be the best move, and seeing how Vanecek stacks up against another squad of stars will be vital for the Capitals as the season goes forward.

“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.”

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