Vitek Vanecek started Game One for the Capitals in the playoffs last season and it appears he’s pretty much locked in his chance to do so again more than a month before the postseason begins.
Vanecek’s recent good play has made Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan “comfortable with the goaltending” heading into the playoffs. It’ll be the second consecutive year Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov will backstop the Capitals as the team attempts to win the organization’s second Stanley Cup.
MacLellan made the comments after the Trade Deadline passed on Monday.
“I think it was great what he’s done here lately,” MacLellan said of Vanecek. “I think he deserves opportunity to take the team into the playoffs. He had a real good stretch, got injured there, came back, and still played well. I think we’ve got a certain comfort level with how he’s played and the way he’s maintained it.”
MacLellan’s newfound confidence in his Czech netminder is well-founded. Since January 1, Vanecek has appeared in 16 games and posted a 2.23 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. During that span, Vanecek posted three shutouts in nine games. Overall this season, Vanecek is 16-8-5 with a .918 save percentage.
Vanecek’s only bump in the road during that time was a literal one when he was slammed into the goal frame by Kasperi Kapanen in a February 1 game against the Penguins. Vanecek went 27 days without playing due to his upper-body injury, but when he returned, he remained just as sharp as before.
The Capitals were heavily rumored to be in on 2021 Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury ahead of the trade deadline, but reporting after the fact suggested that MAF was not interested in playing for any team in the East to avoid playing the Penguins in the postseason. The Capitals instead targeted two defensive forwards who could play both wing and center, Marcus Johansson and Johan Larsson.
In early March, MacLellan said the team wouldn’t be “as aggressive as we normally are” at the trade deadline as the Capitals posted a losing record in February and fell into the East’s second wildcard spot. But since then, the Capitals have rebounded, posting a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 March games. MacLellan pulled the trigger and dealt three draft picks and Daniel Sprong to boost the team.
“I think we played a lot better, but I think getting guys back, getting guys slotted properly and Vitek playing really well in net, all those things I think contributed to our level of play increasing and our record as of late,” MacLellan said. “I think our goal has been to find some chemistry in our middle six whether injuries or other things that were happening and some depth because it seems like the whole year we’ve been injured — players going in and out of the lineup. Going into the playoffs, we wanted as much depth as we could.”
Vanecek’s first attempt to lead the Capitals in the playoffs lasted only 13 minutes in 2021. VV injured his hamstring trying to make a split save. The lower-body injury caused Vanecek to be out 12 weeks total. The Czech yielded the net to Craig Anderson and Ilya Samsonov in the series. The Capitals were first-rounded and lost to the Boston Bruins in five games.
Vanecek is now a year older and coming off an immeasurably valuable experience with the Seattle Kraken. Will it lead to a different result this year? We’ll see. The Capitals have been first-rounded three consecutive years.
Headline photo: Cara Bahniuk/RMNB
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