ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Capitals will play the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday in one of the biggest games of the season and it will be a rookie netminder leading the team. Head coach Todd Reirden announced Saturday that Ilya Samsonov will start against Pittsburgh in a move that could signal that Samsonov has taken over as the team's top netminder.

"We looked at some different things and liked a lot of parts of [Samsonov's] game [Firiday against the Ottawa Senators]," Reirden said. "I think it's another challenge for him, first game against Pittsburgh this year and we'll see how he does."

Washington has the top record in the NHL and has virtually led the league since the start of November. Because of that, the team has not played many meaningful games. It is not insignificant that when in a game against their archrival and the second-place team in the division, Reirden elected to go with Samsonov over the incumbent Braden Holtby.

There is no question that Samsonov has been the better of the two goalies this season. He has a 16-2-1 record with a 2.12 GAA and .925 save percentage, while Holtby has a 19-10-4 record, 3.11 GAA and .896 save percentage. He has struggled at various points throughout the season and, after a decent start against Montreal on Monday, his turnover to Ryan Johansen on Wednesday against the Nashville Predators led to the game-tying goal and was the turning point in the loss.

If facing a must-win game, it would be hard to argue against Samsonov at this point.


Sunday, however, is not a must-win game. It is significant, but it is the first of four against Pittsburgh with over two months remaining in the season and still, Reirden went with the rookie.

Perhaps to quiet any talk of a goalie controversy, however, Reirden downplayed the significance of starting Samsonov while also stressing the importance of having both goalies going forward.

"I think right now, we need both goalies," he said. "There's lots of games coming up here after the all-star break, there always is. We went with Braden for two games in a row and now we'll go with Ilya for two games in a row and see how that goes. I have a plan in mind, but this is one that we address every day."

"Look at past history and Stanley Cup winners, lots of them have used two goalies," he added. "You have to be able to be fresh and you never know what can happen injury-wise and everything. You've got to prepare for those situations."

Considering the team's cap constraints and the fact that Holtby is on the final year of his contract, that has led to some speculation as to whether Holtby could possibly be traded prior tot he Feb. 24 trade deadline. 

Reirden, however, indicated that both netminders were seen as necessary for the team's Stanley Cup hopes.

"We're fortunate to have a young up-and-coming goaltender that's performed very well and a Stanley Cup, Vezina winner as well," Reirden said, "So we're in a good situation."

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.