The goaltending situation hasn’t been completely ideal for the Washington Capitals this year.
Ilya Samsonov was supposed to be the team’s starting goalie. Henrik Lundqvist was the big-name backup that was going to mentor his younger teammate. Lundqvist had a health issue that kept him out the entire season and Samsonov struggled out of the gate before an early season injury. Vitek Vanecek took over and impressed and would go on to share the net with Samsonov the rest of the way.
With Samsonov on the COVID-19 list to start the post-season – he was removed on Saturday but wasn’t added back to the lineup – Vanecek was given Game 1 duties against Boston. Vanecek wasn’t in for a complete period before he overextended himself on Boston’s opening goal.
Vanecek was officially listed as day-to-day on Sunday, which, in a playoff series where every win counts, isn’t a good thing. We know teams hide the full extent of injury concerns from the media and there’s no indication as to how long of a “day-to-day” we’re talking here.
So, it’s Craig Anderson time. Anderson was great in Washington’s 3-2 overtime win against the Bruins, but how much can the team really rely on him? He’s 39, had just two starts in the regular season and, in a perfect world, wouldn’t be taken off the taxi squad this year. And yet, the Caps find themselves in a spot where they need some mega efforts out of their senior citizen in the net to give them a fighting chance.
Well, so far, so good. Anderson stopped 21 of the 22 shots he faced in 51 minutes of action last night and was one of the team’s better players. Perhaps the Bruins didn’t prepare a scouting book on the netminder because they never envisioned facing him, but Anderson was a difference-maker when it mattered. The win made Anderson the fourth-oldest goaltender to win an NHL playoff game in a relief effort, according to the NHL.
The question now: can the Capitals rely on Anderson in the short run if they need to – or even longer? Caps coach Peter Laviolette hasn’t made it a secret that he likes keeping his goaltending situation… a secret. Why wasn’t Samsonov in the lineup on Saturday? If he’s technically healthy, why was Zach Fucale called up from Hershey? Samsonov and Evgeny Kuznetsov – two players that have appeared on the COVID-19 protocol list twice this season – skated with the team on Sunday, and while Kuznetsov is still a few days away from being able to play, the mystery around both has raised some eyebrows.
Before Saturday, Anderson hadn’t seen any playoff action since nearly taking the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup final in 2017. He was outstanding that year, as he was on multiple other occasions with Colorado and Ottawa in the past. But in hockey terms, a 39-year-old might as well be fighting other old geezers for the best jello flavor and not being forced to become the backbone for a Stanley Cup contender.
“He an experienced goaltender, who has been there and done that,” Laviolette said on Sunday afternoon. “When called upon by our organization, (Anderson) has answered the bell.”
When Anton Khudobin took the Stars to the Stanley Cup finals at 34 despite spending nearly his entire career as a backup, that was a positive story. We’re only on the second day of the playoffs, but Anderson’s surprise effort in relief on Saturday is a great story. Now, the Caps need to find out if Anderson can help contribute a few wins if Vanecek and Samsonov aren’t ready to go over the next few games.
Game 2 is Monday. We don’t know how long the Caps might need to ride Anderson, but he knows a thing or two about big-time playoff performances.