The chants came from all over Capital One Arena to salute Washington’s Game 3 goaltender, the one who shined brightest when the Capitals needed him most.
They were unexpected yet unmistakable, as the Capitals rode the Ilya Samsonov wave for as far as it would take them Saturday. As it turned out, it was a wave that can travel pretty far.
The Capitals beat the Panthers 6-1 to regain the series lead on the back of Samsonov, who stopped 29 of the 30 shots he faced en route to a decisive victory in an afternoon that gave them exactly what they were looking for -- a 2-1 series advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"I was close to cry, you know?” Samsonov said postgame with a smile on his face. “Thank you, fans. It was important, too. Thank you, team. A lot of blocks today. It's more important we play together, and we got great result.”
Samsonov’s play in net propelled the Capitals through the afternoon, notably in the second period when he stopped all 13 Panthers shots. Specifically, though, he made a big left pad save on Florida star center Aleksander Barkov on one end of the ice to spring the Capitals the other way.
“This is pretty quick,” Samsonov said of the save. “I didn’t see puck well behind the net. Boom, boom, pass, pass, save, you know. Something like that. Boom, boom, save,”
Marcus Johansson buried a backhander just seconds later to give the Capitals a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“It was an unbelievable save,” Johansson said. “Sammy was unbelievable for us tonight, he kept us in it when we needed to. That’s the way you need these games to go. He makes a big save and then we go the other way and get one. It makes a big difference. You’re up 2-1 or you’re down 2-1.”
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The timely saves were just that for Washington, as it turned back-to-back penalty kills into momentum that led to a lead. With the Capitals ahead by a goal, Samsonov stood tall and didn’t allow anything past him. That allowed defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk to push the team ahead by two goals and give them some breathing room down the stretch.
In the final period, the Capitals added three more goals to all but seal the win, in large part from the effort their netminder put forth a period prior.
Samsonov put the finishing touches on his stellar afternoon with eight more saves in the third period to cap his first-ever playoff victory at a time when the Capitals needed stability — and, frankly, a goalie to steal a few saves — in the worst way.
“Yeah the second [period] was his best,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “He had the one [save] in tight. There’s a couple that he had through traffic that were really good. I thought he was sharp all night but the best period was the second period.”
The Capitals turned to Samsonov after Vitek Vanecek allowed five goals in Game 2, which led to questions about who the team would start in net before Game 3. Laviolette answered those questions pregame, and Samsonov continually answered the bell all to give the Capitals the series lead again with Game 4 upcoming at home Monday night.
"Sometimes it sounds like a knock, and it's not,” Laviolette said of the two-goalie system. “We're a successful team. We had 100 points, and our goaltenders were a big part of it. It's just the way that it's gone for us with two young goaltenders in their second year. And so they both have had really good moments and played really well for stretches, but this is how we've operated for the past two years and they've done a good job."
The job for Samsonov, though, was nearly impossible to understate.
The Panthers boast the league’s best offense, and in the Capitals’ two wins Florida has scored a total of three goals. Vanecek allowed two in Game 1 and Samsonov allowed just a lone goal — on the second shot he faced — in Game 3.
Jonathan Huberdeau beat him high glove just 2:45 into the game and it looked as if the Capitals’ goalie concerns would continue for the second game in a row. But from there on out Samsonov was a brick wall, especially at key moments, as he earned the win and undoubtedly the start in Game 4.
"A little bit nervous the first five minutes, but it's just normal for a goalie,” Samsonov said. “But after a couple saves, I feel pretty good physically, mentally. Yeah, I'm OK, thank you."
When Washington returns to face Florida Monday, there’s no reason to doubt that Samsonov will take the net once again. The Capitals will go for a commanding 3-1 series lead that night and look to push the Presidents’ Trophy winners to the brink.
Samsonov will enter the crease in a home playoff game with a building full of fans for just the second time in his young career. Last year, he started just one home game (Game 5) against the Boston Bruins in a five-game series loss with the arena not yet at full capacity due to COVID-19.
But if his performance Monday is anything like it was Saturday, he’ll hear far more, and far louder, chants for himself.
“You know, last year was an important playoff for me, too,” Samsonov said. “I more understand what’s going on, how you need to ready for playoffs. And we have huge fans today. They were like sixth player. It was unbelievable to see and listen. I want to say thank you again.”
All first-round games of Capitals vs. Panthers will be available regionally on NBC Sports Washington and streamed live on the MyTeams app.