Capitals’ goaltending duo shaping up as one of NHL’s best

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Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, the two young goaltenders Washington got rid of in the offseason, are both having career years. 

In most scenarios, that would be seen as bad news for the Capitals, who gave up on both players because inconsistency on their parts hampered the team in the previous two seasons.

Instead, there are no regrets or “what ifs” regarding Washington’s situation between the pipes. That’s because the two goalies the team signed in the offseason — Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren — are also playing at a high level and have formed arguably one of the NHL’s best goaltending tandems through the first half of the season. 

Among goalies who have started more than 40% of their team’s games, Kuemper and Lindgren both rank among the league’s best in goals against average as of Tuesday afternoon. Kuemper is ninth at 2.45, while Lindgren is 11th at 2.60. Both also have solid save percentages, as well, with Kuemper at .920 and Lindgren at .912. 

As a team, Washington (23-14-6) ranks seventh in goals allowed per game at 2.51 — nearly half a goal better than last year’s mark of 2.95. 

Entering the season, Washington wasn’t expected to have a top goaltending duo, as Boston, Carolina and Tampa Bay were the teams that boasted the league’s top one-two punches. 

So far this season, Boston’s Linus Ullmark (league-best 1.87 goals against average) and Jeremy Swayman (2.51) have been one of the best tandems in hockey. Carolina’s Pyotr Kochetkov (2.20) and Antti Raanta (2.63) have also been potent — an impressive feat considering starter Frederik Andersen has been out since early November. 

Another team with a top-performing duo is Toronto, with Matt Murray (2.57) and Samsonov (2.29) in net. Samsonov’s 2.29 goals average ranks fourth in the NHL. 

Vanecek, meanwhile, is the No. 1 goalie in New Jersey. His 2.34 average ranks sixth in the league. 

After Vanecek was traded to New Jersey and Samsonov wasn’t given a qualifying offer, the Capitals pounced on Kuemper in free agency and gave him a five-year, $26.25 million contract. The 32-year-old was one of the top names on the market after helping lead Colorado to a Stanley Cup title in 2022. 

Lindgren, who had started only 28 NHL games entering this season, was also inked, but to a much smaller three-year, $3.3 million deal. 

“We’re going to be more stable now with our tandem we have now,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said in the offseason.

The plan was for Kuemper to be a clear No. 1 and start upwards of 60 games. But the veteran was injured in early December and missed eight games, forcing Lindgren into an everyday starting role for the first time since 2017. Lindgren thrived with the opportunity, going 7-1 with a .930 save percentage in his eight starts with Kuemper on the shelf.

“[Lindgren] has given us a chance to win hockey games,” Laviolette said in December. “He had to step up, and he did.”

Then, when Kuemper returned, he started playing his best hockey as a Capital. Before his injury, Kuemper sported a good but not great .916 save percentage. In his six games since coming off injured reserve, he’s 4-0-2 with a .934 save percentage. He leads the NHL with four shutouts this season. 

“I think we just defend really hard,” Kuemper said Sunday after his shutout against the Blue Jackets. “When we’re playing how we want to play it makes our jobs a lot easier. … It takes a whole team to get a shutout, really, and I think that’s what’s been going on.”

The goaltending duo is a significant reason why the Capitals have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the last five weeks. Since Dec. 5, Washington is 13-2-2 and has gone from below .500 to a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. 

The Capitals are back on the ice Wednesday in Philadelphia against the Flyers. 

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