Samsonov did not win the job as the Capitals’ unquestioned starting goaltender Sunday afternoon. He didn’t lose it, either. But because Coach Todd Reirden decided — appropriately — that Samsonov had earned the right to start his second straight game, this one in the nastiest of rivalries, the Caps have entered day-to-day status between the pipes.
“We’re pretty lucky we’ve got two guys back there that give us a chance to win every night,” forward Tom Wilson said after an entertaining but uneven 4-3 loss to the Penguins. “That’s not changing.”
That’s the best way to frame it, the only sentiment any Caps teammate can present publicly, and there’s truth to it. But it’s delicate, too. The Caps have 29 games remaining. Three of them are against the hated Penguins, who are now within four points in the Metropolitan Division standings.
What’s the division of labor between Holtby and Samsonov going forward? And who will start in the playoffs?
“Look at past history,” Reirden said Saturday in announcing the decision. “Stanley Cup winners, lots of them have used two goalies.”
Sure. Let’s just not pretend that’s preferred.
Reirden’s choice to go with Samsonov on Sunday, even after the rookie had played Friday night in Ottawa, put a finer point on the obvious: He might be three weeks from his 23rd birthday, but he is playing better than the 10-year veteran Holtby. Yes, Holtby has a Vezina Trophy and a Stanley Cup and has won 48 postseason games on his own, and Samsonov played in just his 21st NHL game Sunday.
But both in stats and in feel, Samsonov is outperforming his elder. Even after allowing four goals on 33 shots against the Penguins — who are now healthy and dangerous — he has a goals against average of 2.21 that is third in the league and a save percentage of .923 that is ninth. His loss Sunday was his first since November, which was also the last time he gave up four goals.
Holtby, meanwhile, is having his shakiest year at the most inopportune time — not for the Caps, who badly wanted to put Samsonov in important positions this season, but for himself, what with a potentially lucrative free agency coming this summer. His career goals against average before this season was 2.47. This year, it’s 3.11, worst of his career, 47th in the league. His career save percentage coming into the season was .918. This year, it’s .896, worst of his career, 50th in the league.
Neither of those stats account for the vagaries of the situations goalies face. But they mean something. Holtby, right now, isn’t what he has been. On a team with the best record in the NHL, Holtby has lost six of his past eight decisions and was yanked from another that the Caps stormed back to win. It all leads the Caps to the obvious question: What could Samsonov be?
“It’s always tough when both of the goalies play games like that,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “Holts is the best goalie in the league — for me. Everyone has a different opinion.”
What, then, did Kuznetsov think of Samsonov’s debut against the Penguins?
“He’s my friend,” Kuznetsov said. “I’m not going to say anything.”
Which is to say, as Reirden did, “He was fine.”
Not more. Not less. So the baton has not been passed — yet.
Pittsburgh, it’s worth pointing out, is in a similar situation in net. Tristan Jarry, the 24-year-old who has been a backup before this season, is playing better and has better stats than Matt Murray, the veteran who won a Stanley Cup. Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan was coy about his decision before Sunday’s game, but he ultimately went with Murray, who made several exceptional saves — and was helped by a crossbar or two — in withstanding a Washington barrage in the third period.
It’s telling that the Penguins, presented with a rivalry game that held massive meaning in the standings, went with the old reliable and the Caps tried out the new model. It’s part of how Reirden and his coaching staff have brought Samsonov along — giving him a little, then a little more, then the big start against the Penguins.
The organization, along the way, has been impressed with how the young Russian has handled himself. His biggest test before Sunday was probably a mid-December start at Tampa Bay. The Lightning has a never-ending well of offensive firepower — Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point and the like. It has another Russian, Andrei Vasilevskiy, in net. Samsonov was bothered by none of it and stopped 26 of 28 shots, and the Caps won going away.
Performances such as that one have given Reirden the confidence to make the decision he did Sunday and not think twice about it. Even if the result wasn’t perfect.
“We’ll learn something about him,” Reirden said, “and how he can be a little bit more solid in his next opportunity in a game of this magnitude.”
Translation: There will be more of these opportunities to come.
Given what Holtby has meant to this franchise and this community, it may sound crazy to say this, but it’s also true: This might be the best way for this season to play out at this position.
Last summer, the Florida Panthers issued a seven-year, $70 million contract to the jewel of the goalie free agency class, Sergei Bobrovsky. We can debate whether Holtby is playing his way out of that kind of deal, and there’s still lots of time for him to find his form. But given the number of large contracts the Caps have issued — to Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie and John Carlson and Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin, with another to come for the captain — they have to save money and cap space somewhere. Why not goalie?
“He’s got a bright future,” Wilson said of Samsonov.
While you wonder, though, who will be in net Tuesday night against Los Angeles, remember this, too: When the Caps began their Stanley Cup run two springs ago, Holtby was on the bench and Philipp Grubauer was between the pipes.
It took Holtby two games to get his job back, and what happened over the subsequent month brought this town its first major championship in more than a quarter of a century. What happens over the next two months will determine who gets the chance to win another one.