In his first start since returning from injury on Thursday, Capitals goalie Vitek Vanecek delivered a statement performance. That statement was that the crease in Washington belongs to him for the foreseeable future.
Vanecek's start was his first one in the NHL since Feb. 1 when he suffered an upper-body injury. Thursday's game was a tough assignment as it came against the Carolina Hurricanes, the top team in the Eastern Conference and one of the top teams in the NHL. But Vanecek stood tall, making 36 saves in the 4-0 shutout performance, his third shutout of the season.
“It feels good," Vanecek said. "You’re trying to get back. Just trying to help the team. They helped me a lot today, blocking shots. We battled hard today and it was a good game.”
Staring in the 2021 season and up to now, the Capitals have used a tandem in net with Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov. But while both players have seen plenty of playing time, there was always an opportunity there for one player to grab hold of the starting job and run with it. Vanecek was starting to do just that prior to his injury.
From December up until he was injured on Feb. 1, Vanecek played in 14 games with a .931 save percentage. To see him get injured at that point was a tough blow for the team. Now that he has returned, however, he seems to have picked up right where he left off.
"There wasn't much work for him in the first, but sometimes that's not a good thing," head coach Peter Laviolette said of Vanecek's performance Thursday. "You can get some pucks and you can feel the puck and it comes at you a little bit -- it keeps you in the game. I thought that he got stronger as the game went on. He needed his best in the third and for him to stay focused like that I thought was really good."
Vanecek made 17 saves in the third period alone to preserve the shutout and the win for Washington. He also made 16 saves on 17 shots Monday when he came on in relief of Samsonov in the second period against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"Called off the bench and played two really solid periods for us and then he jumped in tonight and he was right back at it, so that was really good for our team," Laviolette said.
It's good for the team because it may finally get some consistency in net.
Goaltending has been a weakness for the Caps this season and Vanecek is a part of that. Through November, both Vanecek and Samsonov had played 12 games each and Samsonov had been the better goalie to that point. Vanecek managed a .906 save percentage and 4-3-4 record in those 12 games. Since December, however, he has been lights out.
There remains some question as to just where Vanecek's ceiling is. He is a technically sound goalie but does not possess the athleticism or all the physical tools that his counterpart, Samsonov, does.
But you cannot argue with Vanecek's results.
In the five periods Vanecek has played since returning, he has now allowed only one goal on 53 shots. His performance Thursday against one of the top teams in the league allowed the Caps to snap a three-game losing streak overall, a six-game home losing streak and earn their first regulation win at home in 2022. His performance was exactly what the struggling Caps needed to get back in the win column.
Whether Vanecek can keep up his current level of play remains to be seen. His status also remains tenuous with the trade deadline coming up. Perhaps general manager Brian MacLellan decides to add a goalie for the playoff run and Vanecek again finds himself in a battle for the No. 1 job. For now, however, Thursday's game left no doubt that Vanecek is the Caps' starter.