WASHINGTON – Washington Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek stood tall in net Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The 25-year-old’s calm and steady demeanor was evident despite the Lightning’s persistent point-blank chances.
Vanecek didn’t allow a shot to sneak past until the third period, and the blame for the team’s 2-1 overtime loss to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions was placed far from his shoulders. Instead, just two games into the season, Vanecek has made a strong case to be the team’s No. 1 starting goaltender.
“He has kind of carried on from where he left off last year,” goaltending coach Scott Murray said of Vanecek, who is in his second NHL season. “He’s pretty consistent with his work ethic, he is a great kid, a great worker. He’s grown up, he’s a great pro and the results have come along with that.”
The Capitals did not name a firm starter between the pipes to start the season, though it was presumed third-year netminder Ilya Samsonov would easily claim the spot. However, Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said Vanecek earned the first two starts after his impressive training camp.
Washington (1-0-1) faces the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday.
“He played great,” John Carlson said of Vanecek on Saturday night. “I think we gave up some real good chances tonight too, which were obviously tough on goalies . . . he came out of the gate the first game as well and played great. It gives the team a chance to win the game.”
The team’s initial hope was both goaltenders could get into a rhythm and would be equally reliable when called upon, Murray said. But having an equal goaltending tandem in the NHL isn’t easy. Before Samsonov and Vanecek, Washington turned to Braden Holtby, who was part of the Capitals’ Stanley Cup-winning team. With two young goalies in Samsonov and Vanecek – instead of a proven veteran in Holtby – Washington faces different types of questions about its goaltending now, including how to split playing time.
“If one emerges, then one emerges,” Murray said.
Vanecek is in the last year of his three-year, $2.15 million deal. The contract’s $716,667 average annual value makes him the cheapest player on the team’s active roster, which he almost wasn’t on to open the season. Washington exposed Vanecek in the expansion draft in the offseason; the Seattle Kraken selected him but later traded him back to the Capitals.
Meanwhile Samsonov signed a one-year, $2 million contract in the offseason. Both goaltenders will be restricted free agents at the end of the season.
Samsonov, a first-round draft pick in 2015, has long been considered part of the team’s future. But then last season, Vanecek stole the show.
“His game on the ice is consistent and he’s a consistent human being,” Murray said of Vanecek. “You know what you are getting from him each day and that kind of translates into practice, which translates into games. What you see is what you get so far with Vitek, and it’s been nice.”
Samsonov spent chunks of last season on the league’s coronavirus protocols list and had an up-and-down campaign. He got his shot in the postseason, playing three games in a row for the first time in his career. Meanwhile, Vanecek filled in for Samsonov early in the season and had 13 consecutive starts.
This season, Samsonov was hurt in a preseason game on Oct. 2. He played the entire game – including the practice shootout – even though he later told reporters he was injured in the second period. He felt something wasn’t right, but kept going.
He missed the team’s next two practices and was listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury. He played on Oct. 8, the Capitals’ preseason finale.
Laviolette said Samsonov’s game is improving and he’s seen a higher level of consistency in practice. Murray saw the same progression but acknowledged Samsonov is still trying to reach that same consistency Vanecek has already shown. Samsonov said he tried to work on his balance – both professionally, on the ice, and personally, off it – during the offseason and he worked with a mental coach back home in Russia.
“We know the skill and the pedigree [of Samsonov] and I think he’s started to put good days together and sometimes that is not easy for young guys,” Murray said.
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