Capitals head coach Todd Reirden announced Vitek Vanecek will back up Braden Holtby during the Caps’ round-robin game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, completing an unlikely rise up the depth chart for the young Czech. Vanecek has locked down the backup goalie spot for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs and outplayed Pheonix Copley for the opportunity.
“Ultimately, he’s done a lot of really good things over the last couple of years – being a two-time All-Star in the American Hockey League, his game continues to improve every year,” Reirden said recently. “Had another solid year before the pause down in Hershey. He’s a guy we want to see in this type of setting.”
Coming into Phase 3 Training Camp, Holtby, the team’s entrenched veteran starter, was expected to be backed up and potentially challenged for playing time by rookie sensation Ilya Samsonov, who went 16-2-0 in his first 20 games this season. Instead, Samsonov never took the ice during camp and did not travel with the team to the Toronto bubble. Sammy remains in Washington to rehab an injury he suffered while in Russia during the lockdown and is expected to be ready for the start of the 2020-21 regular season.
Samsonov’s loss was Vanecek’s gain as Reirden tapped the 2014 second-round pick to play in the third period of the Capitals’ exhibition game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday. Vanecek stopped 14 of 15 shots he faced (93.3 SV%) and looked aggressive during a long Hurricanes’ two-man advantage.
The only goal Vanecek gave up was a one-timer off the stick of Teuvo Teravainen from the right circle.
The Capitals would hold on to win 3-2.
“I thought Vanecek was really good – his period of work,” Reirden said. “For him to come into that [five-on-three kill], not easy at all for any goalie, let alone someone young and up-and-coming like he is. Obviously, going into the third with a lead, it’s up to him to hold it. I thought a really strong stance there.
“Even for me from the last intrasquad game… I thought he looked a little nervous in net. I didn’t feel it at all today,” Reirden added. “I think that’s exciting to see from a young goaltender. Growth already. I know that’s something our goaltending coach Scott Murray has been working with him on, believing in himself. A part of that is, us letting him know he is that backup. He has to be ready for these situations. That helped him confidence-wise as well.”
Vanecek’s outing in the exhibition game also impressed general manager Brian MacLellan.
“He got put in a difficult situation, a five-on-three, right away,” MacLellan said on Friday. “Made some good saves. Looked confident. Looked aggressive. He made a very good showing and I think everybody’s pretty optimistic about him right now.”
Vanecek has never played in a regular-season game in the NHL but has spent time as a backup to Holtby as an emergency recall. Vanecek got his first recall to the NHL during the 2019 playoffs. This season, he was Holtby’s backup during the team’s February 4 game against the Los Angeles Kings.
In the AHL, Vanecek’s numbers have been solid. He went 19-10-2 for the Hershey Bears, posting career highs in save percentage (91.7) and goals-against average (2.26). Vanecek was also the MVP of the 2020 AHL All-Star Game.
“Vitek’s earned a chance to play some games,” MacLellan said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t had the opportunity to get him in regular-season games in the NHL. He’s played really well at the American League level. He’s gotten better every single year. He’s worked hard at his game.”
During the lockdown, Vanecek trained at the VT Gym in Prague. Vanecek worked out with Capitals’ teammates Jakub Vrana and Michal Kempny along and other NHL stars like David Pastrnak and Filip Chytil.
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“He’s always seemed to be pretty confident,” Holtby said of Vanecek. “He’s one of those guys that has been fighting for a shot for a while. He’s a guy that always shows up to the rink. He’s always happy. He always works hard, what you want in an ideal teammate and it’s exciting. You could see the excitement on everyone[’s faces] on how well he performed [in the exhibition game].
“He’s a goalie that everyone in our organization has thought he’s a lot better than he’s been rewarded for. It’s a luxury that we have in our organization is that having a guy like him that everyone has confidence in.”
Any opportunity Vanecek gets in the playoffs could be an audition of sorts for next season. The Capitals, facing a flat salary cap going into the 2020-21 campaign, must decide if they will bring back Holtby, who is an unrestricted free agent. Samsonov will complete his entry-level deal next season while Vanecek is under contract through 2022.
“I thought that was a really strong performance from him and we’ll continue to put him in situations here as we move through the round-robin to get him ready if need be,” Reirden said. “Braden’s done an outstanding job. He’s in charge here. We’ll be leaning on him heavily. It’s a good situation to be in and I was happy about that.”
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