The two biggest questions heading into the Capitals’ first-round series against the Florida Panthers have been answered: Alex Ovechkin will be in the Game 1 lineup, and Vitek Vanecek will start in goal.
Ovechkin will return after missing the final three games of the regular season with an upper-body injury suffered April 24. He was a full participant at the Capitals’ two practices before they flew to Florida on Monday, and acknowledged that he could have played last week if they were playoff games. His return to the lineup, while reassuring to the team, is hardly unexpected.
“Alex always wants to play, but he was held out,” head coach Peter Laviolette said after the Capitals’ morning skate. “It was just best for him. He wants to play all the time. You’ve got to love a guy like that. He always wants to be in the lineup. But he was dealing with some stuff and it [was] best just to move forward and have him ready for Game 1.”
Regarding the goaltending, the decision to start Vanecek shouldn’t be viewed as a huge surprise, but it wasn’t a slam dunk either. Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov started 39 games each during the regular season. A case could have been made to start either in the series opener.
Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov started 39 games each during the regular season. A case could have been made to start either in the series opener.
Ideally, one of the two would have emerged as the undisputed No. 1 goalie down the stretch. Instead, inconsistencies in their games led to the two splitting starts for much of the season.
Vanecek went 20-12-6 during the regular season with a 2.67 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. Samsonov was 23-12-5 with a 3.02 goals-against average and .896 save percentage.
“Vitek’s body of work has been just a little bit stronger, but it’s close,” Laviolette said. “Vitek, we gave the start to last year [in the playoffs] and it didn’t go the way he wanted or as planned [due to injury]. But the body of work that he had this year just earns him the nod for Game 1.”
With Vanecek getting the call for Game 1, a new line of questions now come up: How will Vanecek fare against the NHL’s highest-scoring team? And how long can he remain the No. 1 before head coach Peter Laviolette turns to Samsonov?
“It hasn’t happened,” Laviolette said this week of one goalie separating himself from the other. “And yet, we had a 100-point season. We’ve been able to find success with that. They are two young goaltenders that are pushing every day. I don’t know if it surprises me, but that’s where we are at right now. We’ve relied on both goaltenders. We’re going to count on both goaltenders.”
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