With Braden Holtby now in Vancouver and Henrik Lundqvist out with a heart condition, the crease in Washington belonged to Ilya Samsonov heading into the 2021 season. The big question is what would the team do behind him? Rookie goalie Vitek Vanecek earned the back-up role in training camp and now he will have the opportunity to earn a whole lot more.
With Samsonov on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol-related absence list and out for a minimum of four games, the spotlight is on Vanecek and he will have a chance to possibly earn more starts in the future if he can impress head coach Peter Laviolette.
In Friday's game against the Buffalo Sabres, Vanecek struggled with his rebound control and the third goal he allowed on the night was one that could be considered relatively soft. But Vanecek also delivered a number of huge saves such as denying Eric Staal on a breakaway and stretching from one post to the other to deny Victor Oloffson with the toe. He would also go on to stop all four shots he faced in the shootout to earn the win.
"I wasn't thinking about it," Vanecek said of playing in his first NHL shootout. "I want to just catch every shootout and win the game, so I wasn't thinking about it too much."
“It was great to see," Nicklas Backstrom said. "I mean he’s really calm back there and he really stepped up in the shootout. Especially when we missed a few there at the start. That was huge. That’s what gave us two points.”
Despite his performance, however, head coach Peter Laviolette remains committed to a game-by-game evaluation of the goalies and won't commit to whether performances like Friday's will earn Vanecek more starts going forward.
“Whether he plays every other day or whether he gets the next start I am just not there yet so we are going to take everything in tonight and go from there," Laviolette said after Friday's game, "But for a young goalie if he gets half the starts that is a chance to show what you can do. If you get more than that, that means things are going well. We will continue to evaluate the goaltenders."
On Saturday, Laviolette echoed his commitment to evaluate the goalies game by game and that he had no specific plan for a rotation. But he was also sure to point out how impressed he was with Vanecek.
"Vitek I thought played really well," Laviolette said after Saturday's practice. "He probably deserves to go back in there. ... There's no real plan or real path to how we're going about it or who's going to start or who's going to get in there or are we going to be able to see everybody. We're going game by game, and so the early conversations were about Vitek and how well he played last night and that he gave us an opportunity. I think we'll look at that and talk hard about that this afternoon and then make that decision."
Vanecek's play has not been perfect by any means, but considering he is an NHL rookie his three starts have been extremely impressive. Even as Laviolette continues to evaluate, it's hard to believe that if Vanecek continues playing as well as he is that he will not earn himself more starts later in the season.
"I hope so I will play as many games as I can if they give me the chance," Vanecek said, "And I will do the best for the team and try winning the games."
Tune into NBC Sports Washington for Pregame Live at 2 PM before the Caps face off against the Sabres at 3 PM on Sunday.