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Thrust into a starting role, Capitals rookie goaltender Vitek Vanecek is off to a stellar start

Washington Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek made 40 saves Saturday night against the Boston Bruins. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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It was 1 a.m. in the Czech Republic when Vitek Vanecek’s family and friends turned on the live stream of the 25-year-old goaltender’s NHL debut.

On Jan. 15, in his first game between the pipes for the Washington Capitals, Vanecek made 30 saves in a 2-1 win at the Buffalo Sabres. His parents, grandmother, uncles, older brother and hometown friends in Havlickuv Brod were all watching.

Vanecek was greeted with close to 1,000 messages from family and friends when he stepped off the ice. The Capitals’ former goalie coach, Mitch Korn, now with the New York Islanders, sent him a quick note, too. A few days later, former Capitals coach Barry Trotz, ahead of a game against his Islanders, praised the young Capitals goalie during a news conference, saying he was as proud of Vanecek as if he were still on Washington’s staff.

“It was a lot,” Vanecek said. “I texted everybody and said thank you to everyone. It was nice, the people, the reaction, and they all text me. I love that.”

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At the time, Vanecek’s NHL debut was notable, a milestone for half of the Capitals’ young netminding duo. But when No. 1 goalie Ilya Samsonov tested positive for the coronavirus a few days later and was put on the NHL’s covid-19 protocol list, Vanecek was given a much more important role — and he has excelled. Vanecek has gone from being Samsonov’s temporary replacement to potentially keeping the starting goaltending duties even after the 23-year-old Russian returns.

After he stopped 40 shots Saturday night in a 4-3 overtime win over the Boston Bruins, his sixth consecutive start, Vanecek is 5-0-2 with a 2.78 goals against average and a .918 save percentage. His five wins were tied for second in the NHL entering Sunday. And he is just the second rookie goalie in Capitals history, joining Jim Carey in 1994-95, who did not suffer a regulation loss in his first seven appearances.

This is Vanecek’s first season in the NHL but his seventh as a member of the Capitals’ organization. Washington took him in the second round of the 2014 draft, and he spent five seasons in the minor leagues while waiting for a chance to crack the Capitals’ roster.

When Washington signed Henrik Lundqvist in October as longtime starter Braden Holtby departed in free agency, Vanecek appeared in line to return to the minors. But when Lundqvist announced in December that he would miss this season because of a heart condition, Vanecek was thrust into the backup role behind Samsonov.

“I was waiting a long time for this opportunity, and when I get my first NHL game, I was for sure nervous,” Vanecek said. “It was, like, hard, but after that first NHL game, I tell myself: … ‘You don’t need to be nervous; just focus on the game and stop thinking about it when you are playing [in the] NHL. Do the best for the team, and the team [will] help you, too.’ ”

Vanecek’s hockey journey started in Havlickuv Brod when he was 4 years old. He played forward, like his older brother, until he switched to goalie when he was about 8 because his team didn’t have a netminder. And while a young Vanecek wanted to take on the challenge, his dad wasn’t sold on the idea.

“I told my parents I want to try it, and they said, ‘Are you sure you want to try that?’ And I said, ‘Yes, please,’ ” Vanecek said. “So I try it, and then I play one game, and I was good in the net … and I stay in the net.”

Vanecek played in Havlickuv Brod until he was 16 or 17 and then went to Liberec, a bigger city, as his game continued to progress. After he was drafted by the Capitals, he played one more year in the Czech Republic before heading to the South Carolina Stingrays of the third-tier ECHL for one season. He spent the past four seasons with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League, earning all-star nods in the past two years, before he finally made the Capitals’ roster this season.

Now that he’s here, he doesn’t want to let his chance slip away.

“Sometimes it was really hard. … I was getting a little bit frustrated,” Vanecek said of his time in the minors. “You start thinking about it: ‘Why I not get NHL start? And I am getting older and older.’

“I knew this is my dream; this is why I started playing hockey. The NHL is my dream, so I just kept going, kept going and hope it come, and I was just waiting for the chance, and the day came. Now I am happy that my head was strong and I didn’t do anything stupid like going to Europe or something like that. I am happy I waited through the long process and now I play in the NHL.”

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His start in Washington has been encouraging, but Vanecek already has received his share of good fortune. Last week, after the Sabres’ Taylor Hall hit the post on a penalty shot in the third period of a tie game, Vanecek bent over, grabbed the iron and gave it a kiss.

“I feel like it was important, and so I was just like, ‘Thank you, post, for helping me during this time,’ ” Vanecek said. “... I am trying not to put pressure on myself. I am just trying to play and have fun and enjoy the game, you know?”