One of the biggest question marks for the Capitals heading into the 2021 season still remains a question mark on the eve of the playoffs.
With the departure of Braden Holtby in the offseason, the Capitals had to find a new starting goalie. Now after an abbreviated 56-game season and with Washington preparing to host the Boston Bruins in Game 1 on Saturday, head coach Peter Laviolette still is not prepared to name a starter.
"Those are things that we're going to keep internal just with regards to the playoffs and where we go with our goaltending and our lineup," Laviolette said Thursday. "We'll probably keep that internal for the playoffs."
Even if Laviolette does not want to reveal who his starter is, however, all signs point to Vitek Vanecek starting Game 1. It is a remarkable journey for the young netminder who, had things gone according to plan, would likely not have seen much NHL playing time at all in 2021.
When Ilya Samsonov was drafted first overall in the 2015 draft, he instantly became the most heralded netminder in the Caps' organization, even over Vanecek who was a second-round selection just the year before.
When Washington needed a backup for Holtby in 2019-20, Samsonov was given the opportunity. When Holtby left in the offseason, it was assumed Samsonov would eventually take over as the No. 1. Then, the team signed Henrik Lundqvist to complete its NHL tandem. Vanecek looked destined to be either a taxi squad player or head back to the AHL to play another season in Hershey.
Soon, however, fate began to intervene. Lundqvist was declared out for the season before ever suiting up for the Caps due to a heart condition. Then, early into the season, Samsonov tested positive for COVID-19. Vanecek had suddenly gone from No. 3 on the depth chart to the starter and made 13 consecutive starts early in the season.
"The start I was like feeling like I am a rookie and getting new things, learning, NHL, you know?" Vanecek said. "But when we going in goal and I was playing more and more in games, I wasn't feeling rookie anymore. I was feeling like I've been here forever. That's what I learned. I mentally was getting better and better."
Thrust into the starting role, Vanecek exceeded expectations. When Samsonov finally returned to the net on Feb. 28, Vanecek had a 9-4-3 record with a .909 save percentage and 2.81 GAA.
By the end of the season, it was clear that Vanecek, who had been pegged as the team's No. 3 to start the season, had earned at least some consideration to start in the playoffs.
"Was crazy, you know?" Vanecek said. "If I will thinking about it in the summer, I will not say myself I will play 37 games. You can see here, you never [know what will] happen."
Now, Vanecek is expected to be thrust into the starting role yet again.
Samsonov and teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov were scratched from the lineup for a game on March 3 after being late to a team function. Both players have been on the COVID list ever since and have not been on the ice.
With Samsonov essentially out of the team's plans in net, for the time being, Vanecek is expected to start with Craig Anderson serving as backup.
But now the stakes are higher and Vanecek will have to perform even better than he did in the regular season if the Caps hope to advance past the Bruins.
"In the playoffs we need a good goalie for sure," Vanecek said. "They need to make some big saves, but I don't want to [be] thinking about it, I want to go there and do my best and then save every puck and help the team win every single game."
Vanecek finished the season with a 21-10-4 record, a .908 save percentage and 2.69 GAA. Now he will match up against one of the top goalies in the world in Tuukka Rask.
On paper, the Caps and Bruins look to be fairly evenly matched, but goaltending is seen as a distinct advantage for Boston. For goaltending to not be a major weakness for Washington, it will take Vanecek elevating his game yet again to a level higher than we saw from him over the course of his rookie season.
"We'll see what happen in the playoffs," Vanecek said. "It's first time, but I will do what I can and help the team win every single game. It's really good. I'm excited for first playoffs in NHL."