From the moment he stepped on the shores of North America, Vitek Vanecek has been somewhat in the background, possibly even overlooked. He somehow always seemed to find himself behind other higher profile goalies on the organizational depth chart. Vanecek never let that bother him, as he continued to do one thing, win.
Vanecek did it last season when prized prospect Ilya Samsonov was in town and he is now doing it again this season for the Hershey Bears. After a slow November for the team, the Czech netminder has become the backbone of the Hershey surge in December, rolling off five-straight victories.
December dawned with the Bears having lost their last five games in November and sitting in sixth place in Atlantic Division of the American Hockey League (AHL). They were five points out of a playoff spot. Vanecek himself had lost three of his last four starts. However, Hershey scored a total of one goal in two of those losses. The lone sub-par outing came when the netminder gave up five goals in a 6-3 loss to Providence on November 24.
After Pheonix Copley got the start in a 4-3 win over Hartford on December 1, Vanecek got the call on December 6 at Lehigh Valley. He stopped 25 shots in a 2-1 Hershey win. Then, something unusual happened in the Spencer Carbery era, Vanecek was given the start the following night.
Carbery had rotated starts for his goalies dating back to January (the only exception was when Copley started four straight games when Vanecek was recalled to Washington). The native of Havlickuv Brod, Czech Republic rewarded his coach with his best start of the season. He turned away all 32 shots in a 1-0 triumph over Lehigh Valley. He stopped 12 shots in the third period, including robbing David Kase in close with 1:17 left in the game. He was named the number one star of the game.
Copley was back in net the next night in a 3-2 overtime victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Carbery then gave Vanecek the start in three consecutive games. The result? Three wins. The Czech goalie surrendered four goals in those three games and was the number two star in two of those games.
If the Bears gave out Stars of the Month like the NHL does, Vanecek would likely be the first star. He won all five of his starts and gave up a total of five goals in those starts and only surrendered more than one goal in a game once in the month.
His goals against averages in his starts: 1.00, .000, 2.00, 1.00 and .94. Vanecek stopped 137 of the 142 shots he faced thus far in December. In his five starts, he has four games where his save percentage was .962 or higher. The Czech netminder is a big reason that the Bears have given up the second fewest goals in the Eastern Conference.
Vanecek ranks eighth in the AHL with 2.20 goals against average and his save percentage has been steadily rising. He is giving Hershey high-end goaltending and his play is a major component of the team’s eight-game win streak. The Bears have gone from sixth place and out of the playoffs to third place and four points out of first place. Vitek Vanecek is a big reason for that.
By Eric Lord