Goaltender Braden Holtby has secured the top spot in net for the Washington Capitals after rebounding from struggles throughout January when he went 2-6-0 with an .843 save percentage (the second-worst in the league during that period) and a 4.28 goals-against average (sixth-highest in the league). Rookie Ilya Samsonov has also been solid between the pipes, notching a 16-6-1 record with a .917 save percentage, a 2.40 goals-against average, and a shutout. While the Capitals will want to ride the hot hand as they fight for a divisional crown, it will be important for Samsonov to get experience down the stretch against some of the league’s best teams.
Since allowing four goals on 33 shots against the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 2, Samsonov has started just three games and appeared in four of the Capitals’ last 11 games. If he is going to be an option as the starting goalie next season (Holtby can become an unrestricted free agent after the season), the Capitals have to be sure that they are comfortable giving Samsonov the crease full-time. While he has posted an .892 save percentage and a 3.68 goals-against average in six games since the NHL All-Star break, the Capitals need to give Samsonov more experience in high-pressure contests. Prior to the All-Star break, the 22-year-old went 15-2-1 with a .927 save percentage, a league-leading 2.06 goals-against average, and one shutout.
While Holtby has performed better lately, he has posted a .899 save percentage and a 3.21 goals-against average while going 2-2-0 in his last four games. Holtby has played better after some rest in the past and perhaps it is an ideal time to give him some time off to prepare for the playoff run.
Giving Holtby some rest could be the best thing for Holtby and the Capitals as it paid dividends during the 2017-18 season after Holtby went through a career-worst 1-5-2 stretch where he recorded an .851 save percentage. He lost the starting job to Philipp Grubauer down the stretch, starting only six of the Capitals’ final 16 games after allowing three goals on nine shots in a 4-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on March 6, 2018. While Grubauer played well enough to earn the No. 1 job to begin the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Holtby started the third period of Game 2 in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets and never looked back as he posted a .922 save percentage, a 2.16 goals-against average, and two shutouts while going 16-7 and leading the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
If that history doesn’t scream “rest the goalie,” look at other past champions. St. Louis Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington played in only 48 combined games in the NHL and AHL during the regular season last year. Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray played only 44 NHL and AHL games during the 2015-16 regular-season and 49 the next season. In fact, Murray played in only 11 of the Penguins’ 25 games during their Stanley Cup run in 2017. The NHL has evolved into a league where you need two goalies splitting the workload during the regular season. At this point, the Capitals have given Holtby 41 starts and Samsonov 21 starts.
One way to give Samsonov some more experience while giving Holtby some rest would be to start Samsonov against teams Holtby has struggled against this season such as the Philadelphia Flyers (.867 save percentage and a 3.85 goals-against average in three games) and the Columbus Blue Jackets (.897 save percentage and a 3.69 goals-against average in two games). The Capitals will also need to see how Samsonov reacts under the spotlight, something Grubauer didn’t exactly thrive at during Games 1 and 2 against the Blue Jackets two seasons ago.
If Samsonov is going to be a candidate for the starting goalie next year and beyond, he will have to face some competition within the Metropolitan Division. The Capitals have only six games left against teams in the division and he has yet to earn starts against two of the teams left on the schedule: the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. Though Samsonov played 11:58 of the Capitals’ last game against the Flyers, a 7-2 loss, he faced only one shot. If Samsonov is unable to shine in those games during the most important time of the year, the Capitals may want to reconsider their plans with Holtby before making a final decision.
The Capitals also need to see how Samsonov plays against the league’s best goalies. They have a game left against the Florida Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky and likely one against the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin (NHL’s league-leader in save percentage – .941), who is out at least one more week after getting injured in a car accident last week.
While testing Samsonov is a must for the Capitals, it’s important to also show some confidence in Holtby as they did two years ago when he was going through the worst stretch of his career. Samsonov’s play has dipped lately but the best way to fix that is to show that they believe in him and get him back in the saddle. The Capitals have already made it clear that Holtby’s their No. 1, but Samsonov must play more than he has the past few weeks.
By Harrison Brown