When the Washington Capitals took to the ice for practice in Arlington on Monday, there was a sudden abundance of healthy goaltenders. Regular starter Braden Holtby, up-and-coming prospect Philipp Grubauer and fresh-off-injured-reserve Michal Neuvirth rotated through drills, shared the net and went through the workout preparing for when they might be called upon next.
For any one of them it could be as early as Tuesday night, when the Capitals visit Philadelphia for a rematch with the Flyers.
It’s a problem most NHL teams would like to have — juggling three healthy, capable netminders — but one that makes for quite the conundrum for the Capitals.
“We’ve just got to figure it out. Don’t have an answer for you right now,” Coach Adam Oates said when asked how he plans to manage the trio. “Neuvy was hurt for a couple weeks and by being hurt missed a couple chances to play. Grubi came up and played well enough to force some tough decisions. We’re in that boat, and we have to figure it out.”
Washington recalled Grubauer, its top goaltending prospect, on Nov. 30, a day after Neuvirth slipped on a puck and injured his right ankle during warmups. It was originally an emergency recall, but when Neuvirth needed more time to recover and was placed on injured reserve, Grubauer took advantage of an opportunity to make an impression in his first lengthy stint in the NHL.
Grubauer, 22, has appeared in five of seven games since being recalled and started three of the last four as he has instilled confidence in both the coaching staff and his teammates. He made 30 saves in just his second NHL start in a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers on Dec. 8. When Holtby was pulled from the next contest after allowing three goals on eight shots to Tampa Bay on Dec. 10, Grubauer was there again to help anchor the comeback rally for a 6-5 shootout win.
He has played in four consecutive games, boasting a .933 save percentage and 2.23 goals-against average in that span and making it difficult for the Capitals to return him to the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears. Grubauer does not need to clear waivers to be reassigned.
“Patience. You really have to be patient with the shooter,” Grubauer said of what he’s learned most in the three weeks he has been with Washington. “I want to be up here, so every day I stay up here it’s great for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen, of course, because Neuvy is getting healthy. We’ll see what’s going on, but for me it’s all about staying up here and trying to play how I’m capable of playing.”
For Holtby, who has started 25 of the Capitals’ 33 games this season, this past week marks the most consistent stretch he has spent on the bench dating back to January, the first month of last year’s lockout-shortened season. He’s also looking to bounce back after being pulled from two of his past three starts.
“It’s never easy not playing. Everyone would say that,” said Holtby, 24. “You understand the reasoning behind it from the coach, but you don’t ever want to expect that over the season. You’d like to play every game and never give a coach the reason to take you out, but unfortunately in this situation it has been [that way]. I’m just trying to use it to my advantage to work harder in practice on a few things and be ready when I’m called upon.”
When discussing the goaltenders, though, Oates made one thing clear — Holtby is still the team’s starter in his eyes.
“Holts has been our No. 1 guy, and he is our No. 1 guy. That’s his mind-set,” said Oates, who at the same time wouldn’t divulge a starter against the Flyers.
Then there’s Neuvirth, 25, who has held every conceivable place on the depth chart during his professional career from starter to backup to, as is the case now, returning from injury and looking to get back in a game. He made 33 saves in a conditioning start with Hershey over the weekend and said he’s recovered from the ankle injury.
“Health-wise, I’m feeling good,” said Neuvirth, who acknowledged he doesn’t know what the future has in store for him. “It’s very interesting. We’re gonna see what’s going to happen.”
Few teams carry three healthy goaltenders on their active roster like the Capitals are doing now. The last time Washington did so for any length of time was at the end of the 2007-08 season, when they acquired Cristobal Huet at the trade deadline and added him to a depth chart already containing Olie Kolzig and Brent Johnson.
But uncertainty about whom the Capitals will lean on in net is a rather familiar phenomenon, considering the team has used nine starters since 2007.
“It’s been the same here for, what, the last seven years or so?” Holtby quipped. “Nothing new around here.”