New Men in Net — Debut Games For Washington Capitals Goalies

Photo: Washington Capitals

In the history of the Washington Capitals, 51 men have played at least one game in goal. Among the 51, some made their NHL debut with the Capitals while others made their NHL debut with another team before playing for the Capitals. However, only one netminder, Zach Fucale, would post a shutout in his NHL debut.

In this piece we take a look at the NHL debuts of some of the most important goalies in Capitals’ history, who started their careers with the Capitals.

Olaf Kolzig

Drafted: 1989 NHL Entry Draft in first round with 19th overall pick
First Game: October 11, 1989 against the Hartford Whalers on the road

Photo: Susan A. Walsh/AP

Kolzig’s debut was somewhat of a rocky one. The Whalers scored three goals during the first period, two by Paul MacDermid nearly five minutes apart. The Caps broke the shutout when Stephen Leach scored, decreasing the deficit to 3-1, but Ed Kastelic scored for Hartford early in second period to make the score 4-1, and that would be the final. Kolzig stopped 19 out of 23 shots faced.

While Kolzig displayed some nervousness in his NHL debut, his performance was not considered to be all that bad, as the team did not give him much help on defense or in backchecking. The Capitals also went 0 for 6 on the power play, not even registering a shot on goal during a five-minute major penalty Hartford had earned.

Next Game: October 21, 1989 vs Toronto Maple Leafs (gave up 8 goals on 8 shots)
Immediate Aftermath: Returned to junior hockey but returned for game in 1992-93
First Win: January 27, 1995 vs New York Islanders (Caps won 5-2)
Became Full Time Capital: 1996-97
Career with Capitals: 1989-90 thorough 2007-08; 711 games played; 301-293-86

NHL: Way Back Machine — Memories of Kolzig’s Early Career
Washington Post: Game Recap — Whalers Shrug Off Lifeless  Capitals 4-1
Box Score of Game — Hockey Reference

Jim Carey

Drafted: Second round of 1992 NHL Entry Draft (32nd overall pick)
First Game: March 2, 1995 against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum

The Capitals got off to a terrible 3-10-5 start for the 1994-95 season, a season that started late, due to the NHL lockout. Thus, they called up Jim Carey from the AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates, in hopes of turning their season around.

Photo: Denis Brodeur/Getty Images

The Islanders struck first when Ray Ferraro scored at 11:47 into the first period. Fortunately for the Capitals, Peter Bondra scored the game tying goal before the end of first period. The second period was all Capitals, with Keith Jones and Michal Pivonka both scoring, the latter scoring on a shortie. The score was now 3-1 in favor of the Capitals. In the third period, Jones scored his second goal of the game to put the Caps up 4-1. The Islanders scored two goals, one by Ziggy Palffy and one by Steve Thomas, the latter with just one second left in the game. The Capitals won 4-3 and Carey made 21 saves in 24 chances.

Next Game: March 4, 1995
Immediate Aftermath: Became team main goalie and helped lead them to playoffs
Became Full Time Capital: 1994-95 (after callup)
Career with Capitals: 1994-95 through 1996-97; 139 games: 70-48-15

Box Score of Game — Hockey Reference
The Mask: The Short, Eventful Capitals Career of Jim Carey
Flashback Friday: Where in the World is Jim Carey?
Sports Illustrated: Rise and Quick Fall of Vezina Winner Jim Carey
Heroes of the Crease: Jim Carey

Semyon Varlamov

Drafted: First round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft (23rd overall)
First Game: December 13, 2008 against the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Center

Photo: Jonathan Newton/Washington Post

Just a day earlier, December 12, 2008, the Capitals number one goalie, Jose Theodore, developed a hip injury. Given that the Capitals had a game that night, which was the first game of a back-to-back set, and also given that backup goaltender, Brent Johnson, had hip injuries of his own and could not play both games of the back-to-back set, they needed to call up a goaltender from their farm team in Hershey. Only one problem, the Bears were on a road trip in Texas and the logistics of getting Varlamov to Washington DC in time for the game were tricky, to say the least. But he arrived at Verizon Center about half way through first period.

Varlamov would start the next day in Montreal against the Canadiens. Nicklas Backstrom staked Varlamov and the Capitals to a 1-0 lead with a power play goal in the middle of first period. The Canadiens tied the game with less than five minutes to go in the second period. The Capitals won the game 2-1, thanks to a Michael Nylander goal at 17:28. Varlamov made 32 saves out of 33 chances, including 14 shots during the third period alone, and won his first NHL start.

Next Game: December 18, 2008 against St. Louis Blues (4-2 win with 29 saves)
Immediate Aftermath: Returned to Hershey Bears in late December but returned to team in March 2009
Became Full Time Capital: 2009-10
Career with Capitals: 2008-09 through 2010-11 (Traded to Colorado Avalanche); 59 games: 30-13-12

Russian Goalie Memories: A Recall From Deep in the Heart of Texas and A Dazzling Debut
Box Score of Game — Hockey Reference

Michal Neuvirth

Drafted: Second round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft (34rd overall pick)
First Game: February 14, 2009 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena

Photo: Washington Capitals

Neuvirth was called up to the Capitals on February 3, 2009 because their backup goalie, Brent Johnson, was injured, and ultimately needed surgery. Fellow prospect Semyon Varlamov was also injured at the time. The Capitals were on a road trip to Florida which included a back-to-back set.

The first period was a great period for the Capitals, with Alexander Semin, Alex Ovechkin, and Shaone Morrisonn all scoring goals to stake the Capitals to a 3-0 lead. They added their fourth goal during second period when Mike Green scored on the power play. This particular goal extended Green’s consecutive goal-scoring streak to eight games, which set a record for defensemen. Tampa Bay scored midway through second period to make the score 4-1. But Eric Fehr scored for the Caps during the third period, making the score 5-1 which was the final score. Neuvirth saved 30 of the 31 shots he faced. The game is best known for being the game where Green set his consecutive game scoring streak.

Next Game: February 26, 2009 vs Atlanta Thrashers (4-3 win)
Immediate Aftermath: Returned to Hershey Bears on March 6 but returned to team next season
Became Full Time Capital: 2010-11
Career with Capitals: 2008-09 through 2012-13 (Traded to Buffalo Sabres; 134 games: 59-41-13and, thus, Head Coach figured it was a good time to let Neuvirth make his NHL debut.

Retro Recap: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning – February 14, 2009
Box Score of Game — Hockey Reference

Braden Holtby

Drafted: Fourth round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft (93rd overall)
First Game: November 16, against the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center

Photo: Washington Capitals

Unlike most NHL debuts of goalies where they generally start the game, Holtby made his NHL debut in relief. The Capitals were leading the Boston Bruins 3-0 going into the third period. But during the first part of the third period, the Bruins tied the score, so Head Coach Bruce Boudreau made the decision to replace goalie Michal Neuvirth, who had given up 3 goals on just 14 total shots for the game.

After the goalie switch, John Carlson scored the go-ahead for the Capitals goal at 13:25. Alex Ovechkin got an empty net goal near the end of the game, as the Capitals won 5-3.  Holtby made 4 saves out of 4 shots in ten minutes of work to earn his first NHL win in his first appearance.

Next Game: November 7, 2010 vs Philadelphia Flyers (3-2 win in Overtime)
Immediate Aftermath: Returned to Hershey Bears after Nov 22 but returned in January 2011
Became Full Time Capital: 2012-13 (After NHL Lockout)
Career with Capitals: 2010-11 through 2019-20 (became unrestricted free agent; 468 games: 282-122-46)

How Braden Holtby Became “The Holtbeast”
Birth Of A Beast: Retro Recap — Washington Capitals vs Boston Bruins – November 5, 2010
Retro Recap: Symmetric Rivalry — Washington Capitals vs Philadelphia Flyers in the 2010-11 Season

Philipp Grubauer

Drafted: Fourth round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft (112th overall)
First Game: February 27, 2013 against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Arena

Photo: Nick Wass/AP

The Capitals called Grubauer up from the Hershey Bears on February 27, 2012 on an emergency basis when Michal Neuvirth was ill. Braden Holtby had to start the second game of a back-to-back set of games after playing in the first game. It was not a good day for Holtby, proving the adage that it’s rarely a good idea to start a goalie in both games of a back-to-back set of games. The Capitals fell behind 2-0 before five minutes had elapsed. During the second period, Holtby gave up a power play goal to the Flyers.  With just over five minutes to go in the second period, the Flyers scored their fourth goal of the game, which was a long-range slap shot by Max Talbot that went under Holtby’s left arm and the Capitals were down 4-0. At this point Head Coach Adam Oates decided to pull Holtby and replace him with Philipp Grubauer.

Grubauer finished the game giving up no goals and made 14 saves. Joel Ward scored for the Capitals with just over two minutes to go in the game to break the shutout. The Capitals lost 4-1. Coach Oates was not happy with the team’s play but was impressed with Grubauer’s performance.

Next Game: March 9 against the New York Islanders (5-2 loss)
Immediate Aftermath: Returned to Hershey Bears but returned in March 2013 Became Full Time Capital: 2015-16
Career with Capitals: 2012-13 through 2017-18 (traded to Colorado Avalanche; 101 games: 43-31-11)

Washington Post: Philipp Grubauer’s NHL Debut a Dream Come True
WashingtonPost: Holtby Pulled From 4-1 Loss as Washington Falls Flat
Box Score of Game — Hockey Reference

Ilya Samsonov

Drafted: First round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft (22nd overall pick)
First Game: October 4, 2019 against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum

Photo: Washington Capitals

Ilya Samsonov won the backup role to Braden Holtby during training camp in 2019, beating out Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek and started the Capitals second game of the year. In that game, Jakub Vrana scored his second goal of the season just over halfway through first period to stake the Capitals to a 1-0 lead. However, Devon Toews scored for the Islanders to tie the game at 1-1.

T.J. Oshie scored the go ahead goal for the Capitals on a power play, putting the Capitals ahead, 2-1. There was no scoring during third period.  Ilya Samsonov won his NHL debut, making 25 saves in 26 chances.

Next Game: October 12, 2019 (4-1 win against the Dallas Stars)
Immediate Aftermath: Remains with team
Became Full Time Capital: 2019-20
Career with Capitals: 2019-20 through present

Box Score of Game — NHL Game Center
Samsonov Strong In NHL Debut Against Islanders/

Vitek Vanecek

Drafted: Second round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft (41st overall pick)
First Game: January 15, 2021

Photo: Washington Capitals

With Braden Holtby gone after the 2019-20 season in free agency and Henrik Lundqvist, who had signed with the Capitals during the off season, unable to play due to a heart condition, Vanecek finally made his NHL debut. The plan was to give both Samsonov and Vanecek plenty of starts and eventually one would stand out and become the team’s new Number one goalie.

In that game, Jakub Vrana scored his second goal of the season just over halfway through first period to stake the Capitals to a 1-0 lead.  However, Rasmus Ristolainen scored for the Sabres early in the second period to tie the game, 1-1.

Tom Wilson scored for the Caps seven minutes later, restoring the Capitals one goal lead. There was no scoring during third period.  The final score was 2-1. Vitek Vanecek won his NHL debut, making 30 saves in 31 chances.

Next Game: January 19, 2021 (5-4 Overtime loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins)
Immediate Aftermath: Remains with team
Became Full Time Capital: 2020-21
Career with Capitals: 2020-21 through present

Vitek Vanecek Will Make First Career NHL Start Friday Night In Buffalo
Vitek Vanecek on NHL Debut 2-1 Victory Over Sabres Dream Came True
The Parallel Paths of Vitek Vanecek and Alex Nedeljkovic

Conclusion:

There have been some impressive debut games for several of the Capitals goalies, but ll fell just short of being a shutout. Varlomov, Neuvirth, Samsonov, and Vanecek each gave up just one goal in their debuts. Holtby had a good debut in relief and followed it up by giving up two goals in his first start. Grubauer had a good debut in relieve and had a rough first start. Kolzig had a rough beginning but later developed into the team’s franchise goaltender.

Fucale was sent back to the Hershey Bears after his shutout. But he will likely be back again some day.

Further Reading
From Kolzig to Holtby: Looking At the Washington Capitals — Goalie Carousel — Part 1
From Kolzig to Holtby: Looking at the Washington Capitals — Goalie Carousel — Part 2
From Kolzig to Holtby: Looking at the Washington Capitals — Goalie Carousel — Part 3
From Kolzig to Holtby – Washington Capitals Goalie Carousel — Part 4
From Kolzig to Holtby: Looking at the Washington Capitals — Goalie Carousel — Part 5 of 5
The Russian Invasion: An Updated Look At The Influx Of Russian Netminders In The Metropolitan Division
The Russian Infusion: An Updated Look At The Influx of Young Russian Goaltenders in the NHL
The Russians Are Coming!: A Look at the Influx of Russian Goaltenders in the Metropolitan Division

By Diane Doyle

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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