Once the Capitals didn’t acquire a goalie at the trade deadline, it was clear the biggest question facing the team entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs would be its goaltending situation.
That question mark became even more pronounced once the Capitals learned their first-round opponent would be the high-flying Florida Panthers. In the regular season, the Panthers led the NHL in scoring with 337 goals (4.11 per game), making them the NHL’s most prolific offense in 25 years.
Vitek Vanecek got the first crack, playing admirably in Game 1 but horribly in Game 2. Game 3 was Ilya Samsonov’s turn, and he didn’t disappoint.
The 25-year-old Russian dazzled Saturday, saving 29 of 30 shots to lead the Capitals to a 6-1 victory. A 2-1 series lead is right where Washington wants to be, but it still means the Capitals need at least two more games of top-tier play in net.
Can Samsonov continue to answer the call? That’s the question that may determine whether the Capitals can actually pull off the massive first-round upset of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers.
Despite Samsonov’s stellar performance thus far, Capitals coach Peter Laviolette isn’t going to commit to him as the starter for the remainder of the postseason.
The Capitals’ goaltending situation for the entire campaign has been split between Vanecek and Samsonov, as both netminders started 39 games during the regular season. Washington entered the season with the youngest goaltending duo in the NHL, and it showed at times during the season. Neither goalie played at a high level consistently, causing Laviolette to pick and choose — mostly riding the hot hand, something he’s said he will continue to do this postseason.
“I said that before, and sometimes it sounds like a knock and it’s not. We’re a successful team, we had 100 points, and our goaltenders are a big part of it,” Laviolette said. “It’s just the way that it’s gone for us with two young goaltenders in their second year. They both have had really good moments and played really well for stretches, but this is how we’ve operated for the past two years.”
During the regular season, Vanecek was more consistent than Samsonov, as the 26-year-old Czech recorded a .908 save percentage compared to the latter’s .896. While Samsonov’s lows were at times lower than Vanecek’s, his highs were also higher — displaying the ceiling he possesses as a former first-round pick by the Capitals in 2015.
“We have confidence in both of them,” winger T.J. Oshie said. “No matter who’s in net, we know they’re going to work hard for us. … We have confidence they’re going to come up big when we have a breakdown and we need a big save.”
While the overall game went Samsonov’s way, it didn’t start that way.
Less than three minutes into the contest, Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau flicked a wrister that was too fast for Samsonov to glove save. But he quickly bounced back, especially in the second period. He made several saves on back-to-back penalty kills and then made an incredible stop that quickly led to the game-winning goal by Marcus Johansson.
Samsonov’s play wasn’t lost on the roaring crowd at Capital One Arena either. Early in the third period, after another excellent save, Capitals fans began to loudly chant Samsonov’s nickname — “Sammy.” The young goalie couldn’t help but hear and get emotional about the support from those in attendance.
“I was close to cry, you know?” Samsonov said with a laugh. “Thank you, fans.”
The Capitals’ bench boss is also keeping winger Tom Wilson’s health status close to the vest, telling reporters Sunday that he’s still day-to-day and not commenting further. Wilson, who was injured in the Game 1 win shortly after scoring the first goal of the series, missed the rest of that contest and all of Games 2 and 3. The Capitals have missed his physical style of play, especially in Game 2, but forwards like Johansson and Anthony Mantha have stepped up in Wilson’s absence.
Game 4 is set for Capital One Arena at 7 p.m. on Monday.
• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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