The Washington Capitals have a big problem right now, and it is the one problem you do not want to have with the Stanley Cup Playoffs just around the corner.
Not only in the way their two goalies (Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov) have played this season, but also because they are still not sure which one of them is going to be their starter when the playoffs begin. Neither one has taken the job and run with it, and it only seems to be getting more muddled with each passing game.
The Capitals are a weird team to get a handle on right now. Overall, they are pretty good. It has not been a bad season by any objective measure. They have been all but locked into a playoff position for a few months now (just like the other seven Eastern Conference spots) and have a really strong record despite playing half of the season without three of their top-six forwards (Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Anthony Mantha). Still, they are a bit of an afterthought in the East because teams like Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay, and Toronto have stolen so many of the headlines this season and have separated themselves as the top contenders in the conference.
[NHL Power Rankings: Bruins, Wild peaking at right time]
But as long as the Capitals have their top players and strong core in place, and are reasonably healthy, they are going to be a formidable opponent in a best-of-seven series as long as their goaltending does not self destruct.
That is where the concern currently sits.
Samsonov has not yet developed into the starter the Capitals hoped he would at this point of his career.
Vanecek has held his own, and perhaps even been a little bit of a surprise with the way he has played the past two years when he was NEVER expected to play this big of a role.
But it is still not good enough for where the Capitals want to go and what they want to be.
As of Monday the Capitals’ all situations team save percentage of .905 is 22nd in the NHL, the second-worst of any team currently in a playoff spot, just barely ahead of the Edmonton Oilers at .902. That is not the company you want to be sharing in this sort of discussion.
Recent history is not on the Capitals’ side here
Going back to the 2011-12 season (the past 10 postseasons) there have been 30 teams that qualified for the playoffs (including the play-in round of the 2019-20 postseason) with a team save percentage of .905 or worse.
Of those 30 teams, only nine of them managed to win at least one round in the playoffs, while only four reached the Conference Finals. Only one team (last year’s Montreal Canadiens) reached the Stanley Cup Final, and Washington does not have a vintage Carey Price performance ready to burst through the door when the playoffs begin to carry them (the level of competition they face is also going to be significantly higher).
Of the nine teams that did win at least one round, four of those teams won their opening round matchup against teams that also had sub-.905 goaltending for the season (last year’s Canadiens, the 2019-20 Flyers, the 2017-18 Penguins, and the 2011-12 Flyers).
With the Capitals looking like they will be the second wild card team, their likely first round opponent is going to be either Carolina (.922 save percentage) or Florida (.909 save percentage).
The latter matchup (Florida) is also the most likely at this point and it does certainly make things a little more interesting in this discussion.
The best hope against a team like the Panthers is that their goaltending ends up being their undoing, something that has happened with Sergei Bobrovsky in the playoffs on more than one occasion. Even so, Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight is still probably a better duo on paper than what the Capitals are prepared to roll with in the playoffs, especially given their recent play.
Since the start of February the Capitals’ duo has been at .891 in all situations, while neither goalie has done anything to separate themselves from the other. They have both been equally bad. Coach Peter Laviolette basically said on Monday that the competition is still open and they are hoping somebody finds some consistency the rest of the way in the regular season.
Goaltending was never the only question the Capitals had this season, but it was always one of the most obvious and perhaps the easiest to fix with a single move. They did not find a way to accomplish that at the trade deadline. They were reportedly after Marc-Andre Fleury, but he pretty much admitted he did not want to go there because playing Pittsburgh in the playoffs would have been too weird. There was not any other significant goalie movement around the league at the deadline.
Now that they are here their chances would seem to revolve around one of two things happening: Either one of their guys goes on a heater at the right time to secure the job, or their opponent has a goalie that has their own melt down in the playoffs. Of all of their potential first round matchups, Florida might be the one that offers the best chance of that happening based on the past few weeks. It is not a guarantee, though, and even if that does happen there is no guarantee the Capitals goaltending will be better.