WASHINGTON -- On Sunday, the Capitals played their archrival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, for the first time this season. Pittsburgh sits in second place in the Metropolitan Division behind Washington and certainly looks like the only team that could still reasonably catch the Caps for the division crown. In a big game against a division rival, it was not the Vezina, Stanley Cup-winning veteran Braden Holtby between the pipes. Instead, it was the rookie, Ilya Samsonov.
It is hard not to see the significance of such a move. Considering the Caps have led the NHL in the standings for the majority of the season, the team has not played too many “meaningful” games. Samsonov has clearly outplayed Holtby this season without a doubt, but it would not have been a surprise to see Holtby start when it mattered on Sunday. There were still 30 games left on the schedule and Sunday’s game was the first of four against the Penguins.
And yet, Samsonov got the start signaling that perhaps he may have taken over as the No. 1 in Reirden’s mind. Even if that is overstated, it at the very least signals that the top spot is up for grabs heading into the playoffs right?
Not according to Reirden who downplayed any talk of a goalie competition.
“I don't know if I would call it necessarily a competition between the two,” Reirden said prior to Sunday’s game. “I think it's a situation where we're going to continue to learn more about a young goaltender, a rookie goaltender and put him into situations that are challenges. Thus far, every time we've challenged him he's answered accordingly so tonight's a different challenge; afternoon game, Pittsburgh, first time. That being said, we play them three other times. We'll play each game day by day.”
Before the bye week and All-Star break, Braden Holtby started 33 games while Samsonov started only 16. In those 16 starts and 19 total appearances, however, Samsonov managed a .927 save percentage, 2.06 GAA and a sparkling 15-2-1 record. Holtby, meanwhile, had a decent record of 18-9-4, but his stats fell woefully behind Samsonov’s with a .897 save percentage and 3.09 GAA.
Even if there is no goalie competition, as Reirden said, Samsonov has at the very least earned more playing time and we are already starting to see that play out.
Since returning from the break, Washington has played four games. Holtby started the first two, Samsonov the second two.
Managing the workload through the first part of the season was not difficult. Holtby was the No. 1 and has proven he could handle the rigors of being an NHL starter, while the team wanted to ease Samsonov into his first season in the NHL. Should the goalies continue to split time, which seems likely at this point, that presents different challenges in terms of keeping both goalies in rhythm.
“It's something that you definitely have to be cognizant of,” Reirden said. “It's important that you keep both goaltenders sharp in those situations and giving them the right amount of reps and opportunity and keeping their timing, it's so important with that position. It's something that's thought out and practice ice time is probably a little bit determined on guys who are doing more extra before and after with [goalie coach] Scott Murray if they're not playing as much. Maybe we do something more game-like in a practice if our goalie hasn't played for a little bit. There's lots of different things that we think about as a staff to try to keep them as prepared as possible. But with that position, there's nothing like game action so we've got to figure out how to do that, manage it. We're going to need both goalies here. We'll continue to evaluate as we move along here.”
For those who believe Sunday marked a passing of the torch from Holtby to Samsonov, that seems a bit premature.
Yes, Samsonov has outplayed Holtby and if the playoffs were to start today, it would be very hard to argue against starting Samsonov. But it is also important to remember he has never been a No. 1 goalie at any professional level. The most games he has played in a season in his career is 37, which he did last season in the AHL with the Hershey Bears. With 29 games left in the regular season, it would seem unwise to load Samsonov with 20 or more of those starts.
You know what would be a bad time to learn Samsonov still needs to build up the stamina and stability it takes to play every other night? In the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But it also would be unwise to lean solely on Samsonov because the team may also need Holtby at some point when it matters.
In 2018 when Holtby was supplanted by Philipp Grubauer, the two netminders still largely split starts. From Feb. 1 to the end of the regular season, Grubauer started 15 games and Holtby started 17. Then in the postseason when the team needed to make a goalie change, Holtby replaced Grubauer and was brilliant helping the team claim its first Stanley Cup.
Would Holtby have been as good that year if Grubauer had started 20-25 of those final 32 games? Probably not.
Based on where they are in the standings, the Caps have the luxury of not having to choose a goalie yet, and can still split playing time between the two netminders to keep both engaged while also trying to get a better feel for what Samsonov is capable of.
That is a luxury Reriden clearly intends to take advantage of.
“Today's NHL you need to have two goaltenders,” he said. “We have so many games coming up here that you have to manage them properly and put players in situations where they get a chance to be at their best.”
Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS: