From the very start of the season, it seems goalie Ilya Samsonov has been playing catchup with Vitek Vanecek. Head coach Peter Laviolette used Vanecek like the No. 1 and Vanecek's initial play was very strong. Samsonov lagged behind. Lately, however, Samsonov has been dominant and now the goalie competition that seemed all but over is ramping up again.
Goaltending was one of the major question marks surrounding the Capitals heading into the 2021-22 season. The team returned the Samsonov, Vanecek tandem from last season, a tandem that was good enough to lead the Caps to a tie for first place in the Metropolitan Division in 2021, but also one in which neither goalie has establish himself as a bonafide NHL No. 1. Samsonov is a first-round draft pick from 2015 with elite athleticism and a high ceiling, but his play can be erratic and inconsistent. Vanecek is the more steady performer, but with a lower ceiling. He does not possess the same skill Samsonov has, but proved to be dependable in 2021 when Samsonov was out for a month due to COVID.
While it was thought Samsonov's potential would give him a leg up heading into 2021-22, it was Vanecek who got the start for the opener on Oct. 13 and who then started the second game as well. Now 19 games in, Vanecek has gotten the bulk of the work with 12 starts. In fact, Samsonov was never even given consecutive starts until Nov. 20 when he got the nod in San Jose after playing in Los Angeles three days prior.
Just by how he was utilizing his goalies, it was clear that Laviolette considered Vanecek the No. 1. Vanecek responded with a very strong start to the season with a .920 save percentage in his first four games. Since then, however, Vanecek's play has cooled off with a .901 save percentage in his last eight.
But that's not why the starting job should now be up for grabs. These are the ebbs and flows that were expected from Vanecek over the course of a full 82-game season. This discussion is more about how Samsonov has played of late with three shutouts in his last four starts including consecutive shutouts in California against the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.
Granted, this is a small sample size. Sometimes a goalie gets hot for a stretch and you can't make any long-term judgments based on that. But there are a few reasons why Samsonov's play of late should at least open back up the discussion for who the top goalie in Washington should be.
First, the potential has always been there, it's just been a matter of seeing it consistently on the ice. As he is still just 24 years old, runs like this will always come with the question of whether this could be the start of the breakout that sees Samsonvo become the No. 1 he was envisioned to be when he was drafted.
Second, goaltending is the biggest question mark on a Caps team with Stanley Cup aspirations. If general manager Brian MacLellan believes this roster is good enough to win a Cup, whether this team has a No. 1 goalie is a question that will have to be settled before the trade deadline or MacLellan will have to seek out other options. The team cannot afford to risk perhaps the last run at a Cup for this generation of the team based on two goalies who still have not established themselves as NHL starts.
So long as the goaltending question remains open, a run like the one Samsonov is currently having will force a re-evaluation of the position for Washington to see if perhaps this could be the start of Samsonov's ascendance.