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Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek? Caps must pick a goalie and ride him.

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The coach of the Washington Capitals said the following, as it pertains to which of his two goalies will start the opening game of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“We have two good goalies,” he said. “When you have two good goalies, no matter which way I go with our goaltending, it’s a good choice because they’ve both played very well this year.”

And so, with the Florida Panthers awaiting Tuesday night …

Wait. Sorry. I’m being told that quote is from Barry Trotz on the eve of the 2018 playoffs. Slightly more relevant to the current situation would be Peter Laviolette, the coach of these Caps, on the eve of these playoffs.

“They are two young goaltenders that are pushing every day,” Laviolette said Monday. “They’ve had success with our team. … That’s how we’ve found success. And so we’ve relied on both goaltenders. We’re going to count on both goaltenders.”

This is all something of a reminder that a good but obvious trivia question about the Capitals’ run to the 2018 Stanley Cup is the following: Who started in goal for Game 1 of the first-round series against Columbus?

By June in the finals in Las Vegas, Braden Holtby was the established star, and his save on the Golden Knights’ Alex Tuch is still honored on T-shirts and posters. The answer to the trivia question isn’t Holtby, of course, but Philipp Grubauer. Grubauer started and lost Game 1 in overtime. He started and was pulled form Game 2 after the second period. Holtby never came out of the net for the rest of the run.

That isn’t to say the dilemma Laviolette and the current Caps face is completely akin to that pondered by Trotz and his 2018 staff. Back then, Holtby was the established starter—a former Vezina Trophy winner in the prime of his career—who had struggled in the latter third of the season. Now, Laviolette must make a choice between 25-year-old Ilya Samsonov and 26-year-old Vitek Vanecek.

“I’ll probably announce it tomorrow,” Laviolette said Monday.

The problems with these circumstances are many, but they start here: Soft goals are death in the playoffs. This Capitals roster — while maybe as healthy as it has been all year, even with Alex Ovechkin’s shoulder injury at the end of the season — isn’t built to absorb gift goals. Not in the first round against the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy. Not in any round thereafter, should Washington be fortunate enough to win a playoff series for the first time since … why, yes, 2018.

Washington Post reporter Samantha Pell dissects the strengths and weaknesses of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, Washington’s young goaltending tandem. (Video: Billy Tucker/The Washington Post)

The season in the Capitals’ net finished very much as it opened, with no clear choice for Laviolette. Both options have had solid stretches. Both have had struggles. The entire season has been in fits and starts. Vanecek got the nod in October and played well in a season-opening win over the New York Rangers and an overtime loss to defending champion Tampa Bay. By the third game, Samsonov had his turn on him.

Vanecek was playing perhaps his best hockey at the end of January — a six-game stretch in which he posted a .941 save percentage — but was knocked out of the lineup for nearly a month after he was knocked into a goal post against Pittsburgh. Samsonov, meanwhile, has been maddeningly inconsistent.

Vanecek has a .908 save percentage and a 2.67 goals against average, Samsonov an .896 save percentage and 3.02 GAA. Oh, and neither has won a playoff game in his career.

“I believe in both of them,” first-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “They have pretty good games, but it’s not about them. It’s about us, how we’re going to help them, right? Sometimes the goalies give up three or four goals, but you look at the chances and all that stuff and the team played bad. So we have to play better in front of them, and we have to let them see the puck so they can make a save, they can get comfortable, they can get confident during a couple games and it will be much easier for us.”

That’s a sensible, responsible thing to say, and it applies to how the Capitals must tend to business against a Florida team that not only scored more goals than anyone in the league but scored more goals than any team since 1995-96. If Washington is going to beat the Panthers, or even push them, this won’t be a flip-flopping goalie series. One of these two guys will have to get hot, and Laviolette will have to be smart enough to ride him — which the coach is.

Think about what would have to happen for both goalies to be used equally. First, they would have to be shaky. And, as discussed above, shaky goaltending in the playoffs is a recipe for a short run. The answer might be Vanecek. It might be Samsonov. I’m doubtful it’ll be both.

“I have no idea who is going to start,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.

It’s worth pointing out that, as explosive as Florida was in a season that included turmoil — coach Joel Quenneville resigned under pressure in October following an investigation of sexual assault charges leveled by former forward Kyle Beach against a former Quenneville assistant when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks — the Panthers have mild uncertainty in their own net. Their two-time Vezina winner, Sergei Bobrovsky, lost the final two starts of his season and is only a month removed from giving up 10 combined goals in back-to-back games. There’s the distinct possibility that rookie Spencer Knight, a 2019 first-round pick who just turned 21, could see time.

That’s not the Capitals’ concern. The Capitals’ concern is getting Vanecek or Samsonov hot and then riding him. It hasn’t happened all season. If it happens now, the pick here is Vanecek. He is more trustworthy and less error-prone, and the playoffs are no place for goalies who can’t be trusted and who make errors.

That’s a guess. This is, too: If Laviolette starts with one, then goes to the other, then has to go back to the first guy, this is going to be a short spring in Washington. The 2018 Caps won the Stanley Cup with a goalie who began the playoffs on the bench but never returned to it. Any extended run four years later will have to look similar in substance, even if the players and circumstances have changed.

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