Capitals goaltending situation could be big problem

Capitals goaltending
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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.

Goaltending.

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.

[Related: Josi, Shesterkin and the top goalies and defensemen in the NHL]

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.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.