The biggest question mark heading into the 2021-22 season for the Capitals was the goaltending. The team returned its tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek after a decent 2021 season, but neither was really able to lay claim to the starting role. Now 37 games into the season and once again, neither has cemented himself as the starter.
At the start of the season, head coach Peter Laviolette leaned on Vanecek, giving him three of the team's first four starts. The pendulum swung in Samsonov's favor in November when Samsonov recorded three shutouts in four starts including consecutive games against the Los Angeles Kings on Nov. 17 and San Jose Sharks on Nov. 20.
Overall, however, both netminders have looked inconsistent.
"There's been games where they've been really good and games where you're just looking for a little bit more consistency," head coach Peter Laviolette said. "They're young players. I think that happens with young players."
Vanecek has generally been the more consistent of the two. On the season, he is 6-4-5 with a .907 save percentage and 2.62 GAA. He has had to battle first through coronavirus and then through the flu which has limited his playing time. His last start came on Dec. 19 and he has appeared in only one game since then.
"I had COVID first and then after that I get the flu," Vanecek said. "It's tough. You want to be back. I did couple practices and then fly with the team and get big flu, but it's good now and trying to get back."
Samsonov, meanwhile, continues to show the elite athleticism and skill set that made him a first-round draft pick in 2015, but not enough of it. He has a sterling 13-3-3 record, but with a .903 save percentage and 2.76 GAA.
Zach Fucale was able to impress in his first two NHL starts allowing only one goal through seven periods. But with a chance to really force his way into a goalie competition on the NHL roster, he allowed four goals on 16 shots Monday in a loss to the Boston Bruins and was ultimately pulled in the second period.
When asked if the team needed more consistency from its netminders, Laviolette said, "I think that's what we're looking for."
Samsonov and Vanecek did enough in 2021 to get the Caps a tie for first place in the East Division. This year, they again look good enough as the Caps sit third in the Metropolitan Division with 49 points, just one point behind the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers.
But being just good enough is...well, not good enough given the lofty expectations this team has.
Neither goalie is bad and the team's goalie tandem is far from the worst in the league, even among the playoff contenders. The Edmonton Oilers would love to be in the position Washington is in right now. The issue, however, is that the Capitals have their sights set on a Stanley Cup.
Clearly, Washington can get by with its current tandem in the regular season, but the real question is can Washington go on a deep run with a Samsonov-Vanecek tandem? Their play in the first half of the season casts real doubt on that.
Both netminders are capable of playing better, but the Caps need to see that between now and the trade deadline, or general manager Brian MacLellan may have to comb the goalie market to find someone to bolster the ranks.
Said, Laviolette, "You're looking for that consistency and somebody to grab hold of it."