ARLINGTON, Va. -- Ilya Samsonov has had a dazzling rookie season thus far with a 15-2-1 record, a .927 save percentage and 2.07 GAA. Between the Capitals’ two goalies, it is inarguable that Samsonov has outplayed incumbent starter Braden Holtby thus far who, after last night’s loss, now has a 19-10-4 record with a .896 save percentage and 3.11 GAA.
Yet, coming out of the all-star break, Todd Reirden immediately went back to Holtby, giving him each of the first two starts suggesting that Holtby remains the team’s No. 1...for now.
Said Reirden after practice on Tuesday, it’s all part of the plan.
“I plan on Braden playing against Nashville and I plan on Samsonov playing against Ottawa,” Reirden said. “That's the plan right now.”
The fact that Samsonov will get the start Friday against the Ottawa Senators will look like a reaction to Holtby’s poor showing in Wednesday’s 5-4 loss, but it actually was what Reirden had planned going into the week.
Despite his stellar play, Samsonov has started only 16 of the Caps’ 51 games. Holtby has started 35. That ratio, however, will almost certainly be much closer down the final stretch of the season.
When asked if Samsonov had earned more starts with his play prior to the all-star break, Reirden said, “That's where I would say things are headed in that direction for sure.”
And that brings us to Sunday.
On Sunday, the Caps will host their archrivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the first matchup between these two teams this season.
Washington currently leads the Metropolitan Division with 73 points. Pittsburgh sits in second with 67. The division will very likely come down to these two teams making Sunday’s game the most important game perhaps of the season thus far.
So who will get the start?
It has been clear since the start of the season that the team has tried to ease Samsonov into the NHL as much as possible and that makes sense. He is only 22 and the most games he has played in a single season is 37. Even with Holtby’s struggles this season, the Caps still sit in first place in the standings so there has not been any real pressure to force Samsonov into more games.
But Sunday’s game matters.
Starting Holtby after the all-star break seemed like a clear indication that Holtby remains the team’s No. 1, but Reirden also said his plan for the goalies is determined on a game-by-game basis.
“Take each day, that's definitely how I do it,” he said, “And we do it as a staff is coming up with what we feel is the right plan and you have a plan going into the week, but we make adjustments given the prior game.”
Holtby had a good game on Monday against Montreal. Wednesday, however, was a poor showing as he gave up five goals on 24 shots. The turning point of the game was an errant pass by Holtby that turned into the shorthanded, game-tying goal from Ryan Johansen.
So what happens if Samsonov is lights out on Friday?
In the first half of the season, the Caps could afford to be patient with Samsonov. There was no reason to force him into more games and it made perfect sense to ease him in. With just 31 games remaining in the regular season, however, and with four games against Pittsburgh on the horizon, we have reached the point in the season where games really start to matter and where a team like Washington, secure in its playoff position, can start thinking about the postseason.
One of the goals in the final part of the season can and should be getting Holtby back into form, but a decision also needs to be made over who gives the team the best chance to win on any given night going into the playoffs and, right now, that player certainly appears to be Samsonov. With that in mind, Sunday’s game could be very telling.
With division implications on the line against archrival Pittsburgh and with the postseason starting to draw near, Reirden needs to decide who his No. 1 goalie is for when the games really matter. With that in mind, whoever starts Sunday’s game against the Penguins will likely indicate just who Reirden views as his No. 1...for now.
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