CHARLESTON, SC – On the night of February 10, the South Carolina Stingrays sat with a record of 25-16-3-2 for 55 points and eight points back of the South Division leading Florida Everblades. That night in Tulsa, the Rays gave rookie goalie Vitek Vanecek the nod against the Oilers.
Vanecek, 20, had shown flashes of brilliance in his first 17 games but struggled with consistency after returning from the World Junior Championships in January. It would be a few short weeks after this night for any of those questions on consistency to vanish.
The Washington Capitals selected the native of the Czech Republic in the second round of the 2014 NHL entry draft with the 39th overall pick. The Capitals traded two of their own picks to move to select Vitek. Prior to being drafted, Vanecek played for the Czech under-18 team posting a 2.52 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer were locked in as starters in Washington which allowed the Capitals to be patient with their newly acquired netminder. Just before the start of this season, Washington assigned Vanecek to the Stingrays for the season to help him develop and adjust to the North American game.
The first month of Vitek’s ECHL career was an adjustment. He gave up 14 goals in five games, going 1-3-1. November was a much better month as he recorded his first shutout and went 4-2-1 with a 1.26 goals against average and .946 save percentage, earning him ECHL Rookie of the Month honors.
The season from there continued to be a roller coaster ride of ups and downs for Vitek. By the Rays game in Tulsa on February 10, Vanecek was 7-7-2-1 with a 2.39 goals against average and .901 save percentage. He would stop all but one of the 23 shots he faced in regulation to send the game in to overtime. A powerplay goal in the extra frame doomed the Rays that night, but little did anybody know, a spark had been ignited. That game was the beginning of a streak that would see Vitek Vanecek lift the Stingrays ahead of the division leading Everblades, into a playoff berth and possible division title.
Here is a representation of Vanecek’s ten games that followed the Tulsa game: WWWWWWWWOW, a pretty accurate description of his play. Between February 13th and March 19th, Vanecek won eight straight games while giving up two or fewer goals in seven of them. The Atlanta Gladiators would finally snap the win streak on March 24 in overtime but, Vitek’s efforts were enough to earn his team a point. Two days later, he would bounce right back with a 2-0 shutout win over the Gladiators to help the Stingrays clinch their playoff spot. His goals against average fell to 2.00, placing him second overall among ECHL goaltenders and raising his save percentage to .919.
What was the cause for the turn around? What flipped the switch? A bit of an unknown name for Capitals and Stingrays fans is Washington Capitals associate goaltending coach Scott Murray. According to Stingrays broadcaster Zach Fisch, Murray spends a week each month working with Vitek. He has gradually become more aggressive on the puck as a result. Another important factor is that Vanecek has started to feel comfortable living here in North America. Adjusting to a completely different culture and style of the game takes time. Of course, it helps to go from the Czech Republic to warm and sunny Charleston, South Carolina.
Vanecek is not the first goalie the Capitals have sent down to South Carolina for a full season to develop. Phillip Grubauer spent the 2011-2012 season with the Stingrays. He finished the year with a 23-13-5 record, a .918 SV % and third in the ECHL with 2.22 GAA. Grubauer’s ECHL success has translated at the next level and carried him to a backup role in the NHL. Vitek Vanecek could very well be on his way to following in Grubauer’s footsteps.
Vitek hasn’t lost in regulation since January 23 and the Stingrays have a point in 11 consecutive games that Vanecek has started.
Last season, South Carolina set a club record allowing just 163 goals for the season. With six games remaining this season, South Carolina has allowed 148, good for first in the East and second overall behind the Missouri Mavericks.
Vitek and his Rays teammates will look to continue their hot streak tonight at home at the North Charleston Coliseum against the Atlanta Gladiators at 7:05.