When Washington defenseman Justin Schultz scored with 26.4 seconds left against the Islanders on Tuesday night, the Capitals looked to have secured their fourth win of the 2021 season.
Then, New York center Brock Nelson got a chance to send the game to overtime with a clean look with eight seconds to go, shooting the puck towards a crowded net with rookie netminder Vitek Vanecek's vision impaired by Isles captain Anders Lee. But Vanecek was up to the task and not only made the stop but smothered the rebound to seal the Caps' 3-2 victory over Barry Trotz's Isles.
That clutch save was Vanecek's 32nd of the game, and earned him a fifth-straight game with at least a point, joining legendary Capitals figure Jim Carey as the only rookie goaltenders in team history to go undefeated in regulation in their first five NHL contests. The similarities don't end there, however.
Vanecek (3-0-2) still has some catching up to do as Carey's rookie unbeaten streak in net extended to seven games. But the way they were called upon at the start of their NHL career is quite similar.
If all went according to general manager Brian MacLellan's offseason plan, starter Ilya Samsonov would be getting the majority of starts in net with veteran free-agent signing Henrik Lundqvist helping in relief and pushing for the starting role himself.
You know what they say about plans. With Lundqvist out for the season after heart surgery and Samsonov testing positive for COVID-19 and being one of four Capitals to be placed on the NHL coronavirus absence list, Vanecek's services were needed.
Carey faced similar circumstances. An owners' lockout pushed back the start of the 1994-95 season, not a pandemic, but both were delayed until January. He, too, was unexpectedly called upon March 1 that year because the trio of goalies ahead of him at the time was woefully underperforming as the Caps slid further and further down the standings during that truncated 48-game season. He immediately went unbeaten in his those first seven games to set the Caps' rookie record and went 18-6-3 with a 2.13 goals-against average and four shutouts.
Now, during this abbreviated 56-game season, Vanecek is proving his worth, too - though he has a long way to go to match Carey, who was a Vezina finalist that first year and won it the next season.
Carey - known as "Ace" or "Net Detective" during his meteoric rise thanks to actor Jim Carey's 1994 hit movie "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" - wasn't a total unknown. He was a star goalie during his college career at Wisconsin and sported a GAA of 2.76 with a 30-14-11 record for the Portland Pirates, then Washington's AHL affiliate, the season before his NHL debut.
Vanecek had a better GAA (2.26) last year for AHL Hershey, though in just 31 games during the coronavirus-shortened season in 2019-20. He is also 25 and needed five full years in the minors between ECHL South Carolina and Hershey to reach this point.
Vanecek played 141 games for the Bears before an injury to Samsonov last summer gave him a shot to be Braden Holtby's backup in the NHL's Stanley Cup playoff bubble in Toronto in August. He appeared in one of the three exhibition games, but never got into a game in the first-round loss to the Islanders.
Carey did not do slow and steady. He made his NHL debut at age 19 years old, posted an 18-6-3 record and made the NHL's All-Rookie team that first year. The next season, Carey won the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league's top goaltender, after winning 35 of his 71 games played with a 2.26 GAA. His spectacular rise matched his fall, however. He was traded halfway through the next season in a deal that brought back Hall-of-Famer Adam Oates from Boston. Carey never recaptured the form he produced his second season for Washington due to injuries. He was out of the league by 1999.
For Vanecek, a more patient journey to get the chance in net has been required. Nonetheless, Vanecek's taken his chance with aplomb so far, making some highlight-reel saves and helping keep a COVID-19 and injury-riddled team afloat.
The Capitals are in first place and unbeaten in regulation in a revamped Eastern Division at 4-0-3. If Vanecek's resolve from the minors shows anything, the 25-year-old is unlikely to flame out as quickly as Carey did. He's putting in the work to not only stay as the primary backup but push Samsonov for playing time when he returns.