The Washington Capitals have been one of the best teams in the league early on and they’ve been getting points despite some incredibly important players being unavailable to them. While Alex Ovechkin recently returned from the Covid protocol list, fellow Russians Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov remain on the sideline – but the Caps keep pushing nonetheless.
And while the wins haven’t all been easy, they all count in the final standings – even if Washington’s roster situation saw the team get outshot often in recent games.
“We’ve got guys coming in and out of the lineup here,” said coach Peter Laviolette. “We’ve been dealt a tough hand. Do I want it to change, where we’re controlling things a bit more? I do. But I give our guys a lot of credit for battling the way they have through some adversity here and collecting some points.”
One of the reasons the Caps have been able to stay near the top of the East division? Goaltender Vitek Vanecek. The NHL’s rookie of the month, Vanecek went all of January without a regulation loss, going 5-0-2 with a .918 save percentage. But most importantly, he’s been there for the Capitals when they’ve needed him the most.
While Samsonov has rightly been championed as Washington’s goalie of the future for years now, no organization can bank its entire future on one option – because you never know what’s going to happen with prospects, particularly those who play in net.
Vanecek was drafted one year ahead of Samsonov; going in the second round of 2014. Samsonov was of course a first-rounder for Washington in 2015 and it was the Russian who quickly became a star at the world juniors, though his Czech counterpart also played at the tournament. Samsonov would go on to win a KHL championship with Metallurg Magnitogorsk before finally coming over to North America in 2018-19, where he would get his feet wet in the AHL with Hershey.
Vanecek was his teammate on the Bears that year and the Czech actually put up better numbers, particularly in the playoffs. Vanecek had come over to North America a few years prior and the 6-foot-2 goaltender had to earn everything he got. He played two stints in the ECHL with the South Carolina Stingrays and has always had to share the crease with at least one other prominent pro goalie on his way up. But sometimes that long road is for the best.
Jordan Binnington proved that adage when he led the St. Louis Blues to a Stanley Cup after years of developing in the minors and at 25, Vanecek is beginning his NHL career on the right foot.
“I feel comfortable,” Vanecek said. “I’m trying to focus on every game and trying to win games. The team helps me too; they’re blocking shots and making me comfortable.”
Having another trustworthy option in net would be great for the Capitals, who allowed veteran Braden Holtby to walk via free agency in the summer (it was the right decision). As highly-touted as Samsonov is, he’s still a young netminder playing in the best league in the world and the assumption in the off-season was that future Hall of Famer Henrik Lunqvist could be a safety blanket for Samsonov in the short-term.
Lundqvist’s unfortunate retirement due to a heart issue put the clamps on that idea, but Vanecek has made sure the Capitals haven’t suffered. His strong play takes some pressure off Samsonov, who, even when he has played this year, hasn’t been dominant by any stretch of the imagination.
Winning the Cup this season is going to be arduous, perhaps even harder than in normal years. Washington is still in its championship window, but they’ll need contributions from every position. Vanecek may not have been the first option when the team was initially constructed, but I can guarantee the Capitals are happy he’s been pulling his weight now.