When the Washington Capitals played the New York Rangers Friday night they won 2-1 with two clutch, late third period goals by the G.O.A.T., Alexander Ovechkin. But the true star of the game was Vitek Vanecek, who kept the Capitals in the game for the first 40+ minutes with a slew of 10 bell saves to keep his team in the game.
After the game, the Capital’s PR Twitter posted the following:
Since Feb. 16, Vanecek has posted a record of 8-2-1 with a 2.06 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. During that span, Vanecek ranks fifth in the NHL in goals against average and seventh in save percentage among goaltenders with at least 10 games played.— CapitalsPR (@CapitalsPR) March 20, 2021
It’s interesting to see how that 11-game span compares with his first 11 games, because there’s a pretty dramatic difference. First let’s look at the first half of his season (cutoff set at 300/400 minutes to get to around 31 goalies, a sample that somewhat represents the League as a whole):
As you can see with Vanecek’s first 11 games, he struggled a bit early in the season; save percentage and Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) were middle-of-the-pack, but where he really struggled was in the high danger areas and the rebounds.
The eye test certainly backed up those rebound stats, with Vanecek really struggling every game with leaving some “juicy rebounds”, as Joe B. and Locker would put it. As for the high danger save percentage, that means he wasn’t making those clutch goals you want your starting goalie to make - in other words, the saves that often separate average goalies from starting goalies, that ability to make that one save a game you aren’t supposed to in order to get your team points. There were certainly times early in the season where the margin of error for the Caps in a loss was that one big save that never happened.
Now, lets look at the last 11 games by the young Czech goalie.
Wow! What a change for Vanecek. Not only did he improve his basic save percentage and GSAA, but he drastically improved his high danger save percentage and rebound control - which has helped the Caps to an overall record of 14-2-1 over that span. Also, check out where Vitek ranks among his peers: top 25th percentile in every stat. That second in All-Situation High Danger Save Percentage is particularly eye-popping.
Now, here is the question: which Vanecek is the true Vanecek? Is he the goalie from the first 11 games of the season, and maybe he’s just been lucky lately? Is he the goalie from the last 11 games, and maybe he just needed some time to adjust to the NHL and what we see now is what we’ll get? Or maybe he is exactly what his stats come out to when looking at the season as a whole - an average goalie that has his ups and downs.
It seems like the second and third options are the closest to reality. Vanecek’s early struggles could easily be chalked up to simply being a rookie goaltender thrust into a starting role on team with a brand new coach and system, short training camp and zero preseason games. Those would be tough circumstances for any goaltender, let alone a netminder making his NHL debut.
Vanecek has also had a history of starting slowly. For instance, in his first 11 games last season in the AHL he posted a .893 sv%; in the last 15 games he had a .921 sv% - an equally dramatic swing.
We also can’t discount the impact the team in front of him has had - if they could be blamed for some of his early adjustment issues, the improved defense in front of him can also be credited for boosting his numbers in the second quarter of the season.
That said, it’s possible that the consolidated numbers for the season are the true picture of the goalie Vanecek is. After all, he had his share of ups and downs throughout the season when playing in the AHL, as well - right now he could just be on a hot streak and could dip low again. But even if his season totals are what he is, it’s still pretty good. It puts him in the average goalie range, which in his expected role as a backup (and with the team’s improvements) should be perfectly fine.
He has just played 22 games in a very weird season, we’ll see how he finishes up the season before any real certainties are made, but what we do know he’s been very strong lately, and hopefully that’s who we get going forward.