Washington Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth found himself with a bit more elbow room than usual as he took off his pads and unlaced his skates after a brief practice Monday morning. As Neuvirth built a pile of gear in front of his own locker, he still found plenty of room in his corner, the locker to his right conspicuously bare save two sets of goalie pants.
That stall belonged to goalie Philipp Grubauer, who was reassigned to Hershey earlier in the day, ending more than a month of an unusual three-goalie arrangement for the Capitals. While most NHL teams fill two of the 23 roster spots with goaltenders, injuries and inconsistencies led Washington to carry three in recent weeks, creating a restless crowd without providing sustained success on the ice.
“When he came up, he played really well and gave us a little life, won some games,” Oates said of Grubauer’s Nov. 30 call-up, a move made when Neuvirth suffered an ankle injury. “It obviously made for a difficult situation with three goalies. We’ve just lost a few in a row, and it made sense to send him down to go to two. We’d lost that spark in a sense.”
Grubauer, 22, started the Capitals’ past two games — losses in Columbus and in New York against the Rangers — but was pulled in both after conceding six goals on 22 shots. In 14 starts since his call-up, Grubauer had a 2.38 goals against average and a 6-4-5 record.
Oates said Grubauer’s performance over the last two games wasn’t the catalyst for the move — “It was more losing,” the coach said — and said Grubauer “showed he can be an NHL goalie.” Oates added that the Capitals’ porous play this weekend (they yielded nine goals in two games) couldn’t entirely be blamed on the goaltender.
But the three-man goaltending corps wasn’t providing the Capitals with the stability they need, so a return to a normal two-man rotation in the hopes of sparking Braden Holtby or Neuvirth seemed a move worth trying.
While Holtby and Neuvirth said all the right things Monday — “You never want to see a teammate sent down,” Holtby said — both acknowledged that the three-man rotation had been a hindrance.
“That’s why teams carry two goalies,” Holtby said. “You get your net and you work on a lot of things, not only the physical aspects but also being comfortable seeing a lot of shots and getting more in shape through a whole practice. Just your mental strength, your endurance mentally to go through a whole drill focusing on every shot right to the end.”
Oates said he hadn’t decided which goalie will start Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators, meaning that while the Capitals’ goaltending picture has sharpened somewhat, its future remains blurred. The team has yielded four or more goals in five of nine games this month.
The outlook also remains unclear for Neuvirth, whose agent suggested his client would benefit from a fresh start with a new team because of the crowd in the Capitals’ crease. The 25-year-old Neuvirth, who is 3-4-1 with a 2.87 goals against average in nine games this season, didn’t say whether Grubauer’s departure had any effect on those hopes for a trade.
“I don’t think about it,” Neuvirth said. “My job is to play for the Washington Capitals. I’m focusing on playing for this team and I don’t worry about anything else.”
Capitals Note: Defenseman Steve Oleksy, who had two goals, eight assists and 53 penalty minutes in 33 games with the Capitals this season, was placed on waivers Monday. Teams have until noon Tuesday to claim Oleksy, who likely will join Grubauer in Hershey if he is unclaimed. . . .
While the rest of the Capitals mulled Sunday night’s 5-1 loss to the Rangers on a late-night trek back to Washington, Alex Ovechkin remained in New York to appear on the “Today Show” on Monday morning.