On Friday, Ilya Samsonov recorded the fourth shutout of his career. It came against the Arizona Coyotes, the worst team in the NHL, and he was called upon to make just 16 saves in the effort, but it was still a shutout.
Usually, when a goalie records a shutout, he comes back and plays the next game. When the Caps took to the ice against Tampa Bay on Monday, however, it was Vitek Vanecek who led the team out of the tunnel and got the start. This was not a back-to-back situations as the Caps had two days between the Coyotes and Lightning game and have another two days before they play the Florida Panthers on Thursday. Vanecek was given the start, but, really, that should be no surprise at this point. While Vanecek and Samsonov came into the season as a tandem, clearly Vanecek has seized the upper hand in the goalie competition and now stands as Washington's starter.
Vanecek's ascension is not a product of comparing the early season numbers as both goalies have nearly identical stats -- .906 save percentage, 240 GAA for Vanecek, .904 save percentage, 2.43 GAA for Samsonov. Instead, you can see who the top goalie is based on how they are being used.
Now nine games into the season, Vanecek has six starts while Samsonov has three. It is a small sample size and it was unlikely that head coach Peter Laviolette would choose to split the goalies game by game, but the games in which Vanecek has started are telling, starting with the opener.
"[Vanecek] got the nod to start in net, it was based on his training camp, the way he came back in and played," Laviolette said in October. "He hasn't done anything to make me think differently, but it's still early."
Vanecek was given the first game of the season, the home-opener against the New York Rangers. Laviolette then went back to Vanecek for the second game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and for the fourth game against the Calgary Flames, giving him three of the first four starts. Vanecek has started in consecutive games twice this season while Samsonov has not started consecutive games at all, even after recording a shutout on Friday in a game in which he faced so few shots.
This is not to say that Samsonov is about to get parked on the bench or the split between goalies will be widely uneven. In fact, it would not be a surprise to see the goalies split the two-game road trip and Samsonov start in Florida on Thursday. But it also would not be a surprise to see Vanecek come back in for another start and that's the point.
It would be too strong to say Samsonov is now the back-up in Washington -- the goalie tandem is clearly more of a 1a, 1b system -- but there is no question who the 1a is as of now as Vanecek seems to be the goalie in which the coaches are showing a lot of confidence.
"It's still early as well," Laviolette said. "We still have two good young goaltenders."