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It sounds like Samsonov is going to get more looks - but Reirden won't call it a goalie 'competition'

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It sounds like Samsonov is going to get more looks - but Reirden won't call it a goalie 'competition'

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.”

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Who will start in goal for the Caps Sunday? Here's why it matters

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Who will start in goal for the Caps Sunday? Here's why it matters

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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A Capital doesn't win Hardest Shot at NHL Skills for the first time in 3 years

A Capital doesn't win Hardest Shot at NHL Skills for the first time in 3 years

ST. LOUIS -- John Carlson did a valiant job trying to defend his title for the hardest shot, but Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber took home the prize with a blistering 106.5 MPH shot at the NHL Skills on Friday.

Alex Ovechkin won the Hardest Shot in 2018 and Carlson won it in 2019. He looked to be in good position to win it again after taking the lead with only one shooter left to go.

As Carlson skated up for his turn, the number to beat was 102.4 from Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson. Carlson shattered that with a shot of 104.5, beating his own winning shot from last year of 102.8.

The only problem? Weber was the last shooter.

"With Webs going behind him you kind of just expect him to go put up some big numbers," T.J. Oshie said. "But when John put up 104.5, you thought maybe there was a chance, but obviously Shea stepped up and took care of business."

Weber had Carlson beat on his very first shot. Weber smashed the puck for 105.9 MPH on his first attempt. As he was the last shooter, he had already won, but took his second shot anyway and beat his own mark, finishing with a 106.5 MPH shot.

While the Caps had won the event in each of the past two seasons, Weber had won it three straight times before Ovechkin took the title in 2018.

Even when Carlson took the lead, he still did not believe he would win knowing Weber still had to go.

"I think I knew all along we were all just a part of the show," Carlson said.

Braden Holtby also fell short in his attempt to win the Save Streak event. Frederik Anderson had the number to beat of seven when Holtby went between the pipes. He faced shooters from the Atlantic Division and made a run at seven when he stopped David Pastrnak’s shot. A goalie's round could not end on a save. As the captain, Pastrnak was the last shooter unless Holtby saved his shot. When Holtby stopped Pastrnak, that meant he would continue facing shots until he was beaten. With two straight saves, Holtby denied Shea Weber and Brady Tkachuk to get his streak up to five saves before he was finally beaten by Jack Eichel.

"I was just hoping Shea Weber wouldn't come down and take a slap shot on me,” Holtby told the NBCSN broadcast.

St. Louis Blues Jordan Binnington ended up winning the event, much to the delight of the home crowd. Andrei Vasilevskiy raised the save streak up to nine with Binnington as the last goalie to go. In dramatic fashion, Binnington went on to deny 10 straight shots to take the win.

Other highlights of the All-Star Skills:

Ryan O’Reilly’s football helmet

Next week is the Super Bowl Sunday and Ryan O’Reilly showed who he is cheering for in warmups as he came onto the ice wearing a Kansas City Chiefs' helmet.

Connor McDavid is not the fastest skater?

We all know who the fastest skater in the NHL is. It’s Connor McDavid. You might as well just declare the race over, right?

Not so fast. (See what I did there?)

Stunningly, McDavid did not win the event and was edged out by New York Islanders forward Mathew Barzal who completed the event in 13.175 seconds, just 0.03 seconds away from the record.

The Justin Bieber mask

San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl decided to have some fun during the save streak. Before his shot attempt on Binnington, he busted out a Justin Bieber mask and put it on before shooting.

No, he did not score. Yes, the mask was terrifying.

The women’s 3-on-3 game was awesome

If there is one complaint about the All-Star Skills and All-Star Game, is that it is not competitive enough. Players have fun with it, as they should, but they aren’t exactly going 100-percent like they would in an actual game. That was certainly not the case for the 3-on-3 women’s game between Canada and USA.

The women’s teams put on a great display of skill in what was an incredibly fun game to watch. Canada took a 1-0 lead in the first period off a goal from Rebecca Johnston. Melodie Daoust made it 2-0 in the second period and Hilary Knight finally put USA on the board putting them to within one.

But really it was the goalies who stole the show. With plenty of room to work, there were a number of breakaways and odd-man rushes. Both Alex Cavallini for the USA and Ann-Renee Desbiens for Canada were strong in net to keep it a three-goal game.

"It was pretty impressive," Oshie said. "The goalies stood on their head, but the girls were making some awesome plays, some great moves. It's always fun cheering on the Americans."

Desbiens had a drop the mic moment with a glove save just as time expired to maintain the 2-1 win for Canada.

Shooting Stars

You have to credit the NHL for trying. One of the new events featured players on a raised platform in the crowd shooting at targets on the ice. It was...different. The biggest issue with it was that the players could not hit most of the targets and the one that seemed the easiest to get was worth the most points. This one will need some tweaking if they want to bring it back again next year.

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