More than five and a half years after he was drafted in the second round of the 2014 NHL Draft, Caps goaltender Vitek Vanecek finally made his NHL debut on Friday night in Buffalo. The 25-year-old made it a memorable night, setting aside 30 of 31 Buffalo shots and enabling the Caps to eke out a 2-1 victory in a game in which they were outplayed and outworked for much of the contest. Vanecek’s first NHL win also allowed the Caps to sweep a season-opening set of back-to-back games on the road in Buffalo.
“I think it was a good game,” says Vanecek. “The dream came true, and I’m so happy we won.”
Tom Wilson had a hand in both Washington goals, setting up Jakub Vrana early in the second period and notching what would prove to be the game-winner at 7:47 of the third when he whipped a wrist shot past Buffalo’s Linus Ullmark from the right circle.
Wilson also had a hand in delivering a shaving cream-coated towel to Vanecek’s masked face immediately after he finished uttering the above quote. Vanecek shook it off and continued answering reporters’ questions.
“He was really good,” says Caps coach Peter Laviolette of his rookie netminder. “I thought we were slow out of the gate in the first period for sure. The second period wasn’t much better. I think we finally got going in the third period and played a good period to win a hockey game on the road.”
Now in his sixth season as a North American pro, Vanecek celebrated his 25th birthday less than a week ago. But until Friday night, all 175 of his career appearances came at the ECHL or AHL level. Although he made a number of stellar stops in his debut, Vanecek said that facing a trio of shots early in the contest helped him settle in. He frustrated the Sabres for most of the night, yielding only a Rasmus Ristolainen goal in the first minute of the third period.
“I was a little bit nervous the first couple minutes,” says Vanecek. “But when they shoot the three shots early, I was just feeling better and better. When they had the power plays, I was feeling good.”
None of those three early shots – all in the first 80 seconds of the game – were difficult or from in close, but they enabled Vanecek to feel the puck early and find his groove. He was calm and controlled in the crease, and he showed excellent quickness and anticipation on the more difficult saves he needed to make later on in the game.
“Vanecek plays the game of his life here tonight, and congratulations to him,” says Buffalo coach Ralph Krueger. “He really played well. But I thought we were bringing pucks to the net, we had traffic to the net. We hit the metal, we hit posts, we hit feet. What’s important is that we did create opportunity.
“I think the disappointing thing for all of us would be the power plays we were able to get. We had unbelievable discipline again today with no penalties taken, and all those power play opportunities and then the 6-on-5 at the end, coming out empty-handed is certainly the reason we lost this game.”
Washington’s penalty-killing outfit faced five shorthanded assignments in Friday’s game while its power play unit never saw the ice. Three of those penalty-killing assignments came in the first period, and the work of Vanecek and the penalty killers kept the game scoreless through the first 20 minutes of play.
Before the second period was two minutes old, Washington got on the board. In the Caps’ end of the ice, Wilson took advantage of a mishandled defenseman-to-defenseman pass at the Washington line, gaining possession of the puck in neutral ice and spotting Vrana streaking up the middle. Wilson feathered a lead pass to Vrana, who had a step on both Rasmus Dahlin and Brandon Montour. Vrana did the rest, firing a shot to the shelf from the right hash mark to give the Caps a 1-0 lead at 1:34.
Shortly after the Caps snuffed out a fourth Buffalo power play in the back half of the middle frame, Vanecek helped Washington weather a barrage of Buffalo shots as the Caps get hemmed in their own end for a prolonged stretch. Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov logged an onerous shift of 3:39 in length while Buffalo continued to buzz the Washington zone. Four of Orlov’s teammates clocked in for shifts of more than two minutes each during the same defensive-zone sequence.
With four saves from Vanecek and blocked shots from Wilson, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Caps survived the fusillade and nursed their 1-0 lead into the third.
For the second time in as many nights, the Caps yielded a goal in the first shift of the final frame. Ristolainen’s shot from the right point grazed Wilson’s leg and went in at the 31-second mark of the third to knot the game at 1-1.
“It hit my calf and actually went in, so I think Vitek hasn’t had another team score on him yet. He played a great game, so it was kind of unfortunate that that bounce went in on him.”
As the only Sabre to solve Vanecek on this night, Ristolainen was not impressed by the goalie’s performance.
“I think we make him look good,” the defenseman said tersely.
At the start of the third, Laviolette juggled his lines. The results weren’t instantaneous, but after the first television timeout of that period, the Caps started to show some verve. A shift or two later, Wilson restored the Caps’ lead.
Chasing a slow-sliding loose puck back toward the Sabres’ zone, Wilson raced with Buffalo blueliner Colin Miller. The latter lost his edge and his footing, and the puck laid there for Nicklas Backstrom to claim. He bumped it to Wilson, who fired a wrist shot past Ullmark’s glove on the short side to close out the scoring.
“It didn’t start so well,” laughs Wilson of the third period line changes. “First shift, they scored. I think from there we just wanted to try and get it back. Nick left me with some time there, and coach wanted us to throw some more pucks on net. So I just tried to rip one, and it went in.”