- The Washington Times
Monday, May 2, 2022

The Washington Capitals had 82 games to evaluate their starting goaltenders. Coach Peter Laviolette had said many times that he hoped one of them — either Vitek Vanecek or Ilya Samsonov — would seize control of the job, so the team could have a true No. 1 in net.

But the playoffs are finally here. And the Capitals’ goaltending situation is no closer to being settled than it was at the beginning of the season.

Laviolette declined to name a starter Monday for Tuesday’s Game 1 against the Florida Panthers. The coach said he would announce his decision at the team’s morning skate, but gave no indication of what player he was leaning toward. 

In all likelihood, the Capitals will utilize both goaltenders in the series — just as they have all season.

“I don’t know if it surprises me,” Laviolette said, referring to the fact neither goalie has been able to claim the top spot. “That’s where we’re at right now. … We’ve relied on both goaltenders. We’ll count on both goaltenders.” 

Relying on one more than goaltender is something that Laviolette is more than comfortable with. The Capitals ended up using three goalies in last year’s first-round series against Boston in Vanecek, Samsonov and journeyman Craig Anderson, who replaced an injured Vanecek in Games 1 and 2. That ultimately wasn’t successful — the Capitals were bounced from the playoffs in five games — but the strategy has paid off for Laviolette before. 

In 2010, Laviolette’s Philadelphia Flyers made the Stanley Cup Final by utilizing an almost 50-50 split between goalies Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher. Leighton started 13 games for the Flyers, while Boucher started 10. Leighton started all six games of the finals against the Chicago Blackhawks, but Boucher appeared in relief in two fo the contests. 

Four years before that, the Laviolette-coached Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in part because Carolina’s goalie situation finally got resolved. Laviolette turned to Cam Ward after a shaky first two games from Martin Gerber in Round 1. In Ward’s case, the goalie established himself as the clear choice — just as Laviolette had wanted to see. 

Still, it’s unclear whether Samsonov or Vanecek will take control of the starting job. Both received plenty of opportunities to do so, but neither finished the season particularly well. Vanecek’s struggles after the trade deadline caused Laviolette to reopen the competition, but Samsonov gave up 3.13 goals per game in his eight contests since April 1. Despite the Capitals going 4-3-1 in those games, the 25-year-old had a poor .884 save percentage.

Samsonov, for those who recall, was supposed to be the goaltender that allowed Washington to comfortably move on from Braden Holtby. The Capitals drafted him 22nd overall in 2015, and during the 2019-20 season, the Russian was excellent in relief — posting a 16-2-1 record, leading all rookie goaltenders.  Since then, however, Samsonov has been inconsistent and has struggled off the ice. 

Before the 2020 playoffs in the bubble, Samsonov reportedly got into an ATV accident that caused him to miss the postseason.  Then last season, the goalie was put into the league’s COVID-19 protocols twice and was scratched from a game for disciplinary reasons.  He has avoided controversy this season, but his game hasn’t progressed in the ways that the Capitals might have hoped.

Despite Samsonov’s struggles, Vanecek has hardly wowed. Both Samsonov and Vanecek started the same amount of games this season at 39. In most stats, Vanecek was the better goalie. He allowed 2.67 goals per game to Samsonov’s 3.02, and also held the better save percentage (.908 to Samsonov’s .896). Samsonov, though, produced three more wins with a 23-12-5 record to Vancek’s 20-12-6. 

The lackluster situation was why the Capitals were rumored to be interested in trading for former Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. But Fleury, ultimately traded from Chicago to Minnesota, had a say over his destination with a limited no-trade clause, and he confirmed to TNT that he wasn’t interested in playing for the Capitals because of the Pittsburgh-Washington rivalry. 

“It didn’t seem right,” Fleury said. 

To make his decision for Game 1, the coach said he would review his goalies’ seasons as a whole as well as how each individually played against the Panthers. In three regular-season games against Florida, Samsonov started all three of them — allowing 11 goals with an .879 save percentage. Vanecek made a relief appearance in the first meeting, giving up two goals on 15 shots. 

The Panthers, making matters worse, have arguably the league’s best offense. They scored a league-high 4.11 goals per game and have four different players who finished the season with at least 30 goals. The Capitals, by comparison, had just one: Alex Ovechkin.

“Both of them are good,” center Nicklas Backstrom said of Samsonov and Vanecek. “ I have no idea who is going to start. Both of them are talented. It looks like they are both excited to get going in the playoffs here. So, we’ll what happens.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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