Most hockey teams have a clear-cut number one goalie designated for the playoffs. The Hershey Bears are different. They have two bona fide number one goalies in Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, and rather than choose one, Bears head coach Spencer Carbery is rolling out both of his netminders in the Calder Cup playoffs. And why not? The tandem were a major part of Hershey’s 2019 surge from last place in the American Hockey League (AHL) to a playoff team.
Carbery has every reason to continue his goalie rotation. It worked in the regular season. After Vanecek made consecutive starts on February 17 and 22, Carbery rotated Samsonov and Vanecek every other game up through April 9. The rotation ended because of Samsonov’s recall to Washington to serve as the Capitals emergency goalie in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Both goalies enjoyed success during the stretch. In March, both Samsonov and Vanecek recorded three victories. The team played well in front of both goalies and had confidence in them.
The rotation continued in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers with Samsonov starting games one, three and five and Vanecek starting games two and four. Both goalies were excellent. Samsonov went 2-1, surrendering six goals in three games. He posted a 1.61 goals-against average and stopped 104 of the 110 shots he faced. He made 49 saves in a game one double overtime loss and then came up huge in the third period of game five, when he came out a made a save on a wide-open Chris Bourque with two minutes remaining in the game (Bears won in overtime). Vanecek shutout the Sound Tigers 2-0 in game two and allowed Hershey to get to overtime in game four turning away 16 of 17 shots when Bridgeport was peppering the Bears.
Early in the season, a strong goalie tandem seemed a long shot. While Vanecek was playing well, Samsonov was struggling to find his game. Samsonov began his season going 1-3-0 in October with a goals against average of 3.70 and a save percentage of .860. Meanwhile, Vanecek was earning AHL Player of the Week honors for the week ending October 21 by posting a 2-0-1 record with a 1.62 goals–against average and a .949 save percentage in three games during the week.
Samsonov’s struggles continued in November and December and when 2018 came to a close, the Russian netminder numbers were not good. He had a 5-10-0 record with a 3.88 goals-against average and a .863 save percentage. His glove hand was a real issue. Samsonov was getting beat consistently on that side. Vanecek was responsible for half of the team’s 14 wins and was arguably Hershey’s most valuable player at that point of the season. The team, however, was struggling and sat in last place.
2019 brought a new Samsonov and a new Bears. The team went 7-2-0-1 i the January and started to get back into playoff contention. Samsonov switched his number from 1 to 35 and his played switched from poor to excellent. In his last five starts in January, the Russian went 4-0-0-1 with two shutouts. He looked more confident and his play showed why he was a first round pick. Samsonov’s emergence finally gave Hershey a solid one-two punch in goal. Vanecek won three times in January and deservedly represented the Bears in the AHL All-Star Classic.
February is when Hershey made their move into a playoff spot and Vanecek and Samsonov were instrumental in that run. Samsonov recorded six victories in February and Vanecek five as the Bears went 11-1 in the month. Each goalie came up big when called upon. Samsonov stopped 85 of 89 shots in his first three games of the month and had a .940 save percentage for February. Vanecek stopped 15 of 16 in the third period against Charlotte, when the Bears were outshot 16 to 4 and Hershey to win in a shootout. In his next start, he made 33 saves against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, including a stop on Adam Johnson’s penalty shot with the Bears trailing 3-2 halfway through the third period. Hershey tied it on Jayson Megna’s power play goal 1:39 later (Hershey would win in a shootout). The February run (which extended the franchise record point streak to 17 games) put Hershey in third place in the Atlantic Division and into a playoff spot. The Bears would not surrender that playoff spot.
The February success proved to Carbery that he had two number one goalies and it was a good idea to play both of them. This when he elected to ride both Samsonov and Vanecek by starting them every other game. The two finished with similar stats. Vanecek won a career 21 games and Samsonov won 20. Samsonov recorded three shutouts and Vanecek kept two clean sheets. Vanecek’s goals-against average was 2.62 and Samsonov’s was 2.70 (was 3.88 after December). Vanecek held the advantage with a .907 save percentage to Samsonov’s .898. (was .866 after the first three months of the season). In the second half of the season, Samsonov lowered his goals-against average by more than a goal an increased his save percentage by .32. Those numbers are clear indicators of Samsonov’s improved level of play. That improvement by Samsonov, combined with Vanecek’s steady level of play have given the Hershey Bears a tandem of number one goalies.
By Eric Lord