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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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Do the Caps have the goaltending to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the goaltending to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

See Monday's breakdown of the team's offense here.
See Tuesday's breakdown of the team's defense here.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stat
.916 team save percentage (20th in the NHL)

Player stats
Braden Holtby 18-9-4 (18 wins tied for 8th), .897 save percentage (48th among goalies with 15 or more games played), 3.09 GAA (40th)
Ilya Samsonov 15-2-1 (15 wins tied for 18th), .927 save percentage (5th among goalies with at least 15 GP), 2.06 GAA (1st)

It's been a tough year for Holtby. After a difficult start to the season, he seemed to reset and rebound in November. Then December rolled around and he struggled again. His save percentage has now dipped below .900 for the season. He still has gotten a majority of the starts and has put together a decent record on the season, but this does not look like vintage Holtby.

There is no one aspect of his game that you can point to and say, there it is, that's why he is struggling. The fact is that he is playing in front of a defense that has been shaky in terms of turnovers and he has not been able to bail them out with big saves like he has in years past. Deflections and screens seem to be affecting him more than they once did. Whether this is evidence of decline for the 30-year-old netminder of if this is just a bad year is a discussion for another day, but right now his play has not been up to par and he would be the first to admit that.

With Holtby in a contract year, Samsonov was likely brought up a year earlier than perhaps the team would have wanted him to be. The move, however, has paid off as Samsonov has been absolutely brilliant. There are flashes of inexperience to his game, particularly overcommitment when he slides from side to side, but already he has already improved from the start of the season to now and he seems to be every bit as good as advertised when Washington selected him in the first round back in 2015.

When it comes to the playoffs, however, Samsonov is an unknown commodity. We would like to assume his regular-season game will simply translate into great postseason play, but it does not always work that way. Just ask Jose Theodore. The fact is that he is a rookie goalie with zero NHL playoff experience. You also have to consider that the most games he has played in a professional season is 37 which he did last year in Hershey.

With Holtby struggling and Samsonov excelling, there are many who would love Samsonov to take over as the No. 1. But when you have a young goalie who has never in his professional career taken on a full-time starting role, is in his rookie season in the NHL and has no playoff experience, it is easy to see how this can all get very overwhelming very quickly.

There is no question that the play of both Holtby and Samsonov dictates that Samsonov should be playing more, but that probably will not translate into as many starts as you may think after the all-star break as Todd Reirden tries to manage the minutes of the rookie netminder. So long as the team remains atop the standings, there is no pressure to force more games than you need from Samsonov. Having said that, I doubt very much that Holtby will get every start in the upcoming four games the team has against the second-place Pittsburgh Penguins. I would be surprised if Samsonov did not get at least two of those games and one at home.

The verdict: Yes, the goaltending should be good enough to win the Cup

I know, you just read an entire analytical article with the ultimate conclusion of "I think so," but goaltending is the hardest thing to predict in hockey. Sometimes goalies get hot and sometimes they don't.

If the playoffs were to start today, Samsonov would have to be the starter. There is no debate. The problem is we have no idea what kind of a playoff goalie he will be. That's what makes Holtby's role so important.

Holtby ranks 5th all-time in playoff save percentage with a .928 and it's not a small sample size (89 games). OK, but won't his poor season translate to a poor performance in the playoffs? Ask 2018 Holtby who was in the exact same situation, supplanted by Philipp Gtubauer as the starter. He came on in relief of Grubauer in just the second game and never looked back with a .922 save percentage and 16-7 record all the way to the Stanley Cup.

Holtby is a goalie who likes to play as often as possible. The playoffs are ideal for him because you play every other night. It suits his game well. What happened in 2018 is no guarantee of success in 2020, but I don't know why anyone would think the Caps are better off getting a different back up than going with the guy who is statistically one of the best playoff goalies ever and who has won a Stanley Cup going into the postseason as a No. 2.

If Samsonov is anything close to what he has been in the regular season, the Caps are in good shape in net. If not, there is every reason to be confident in Holtby as the backup. Samsonov/Holtby as a tandem is about as good a tandem as there will be in the playoffs and there's no reason to change it.