March 7, 2018 at 6:00 AM
ANAHEIM, Calif. — While Philipp Grubauer took his place in the Washington Capitals‘ net, Braden Holtby was folded over in the tunnel leading to the team’s locker room. His forearms were pressed into his goaltending pads, and he held that position while the Capitals played on without him. He took his time taking a seat on the bench, cooling off just as Washington’s goaltending dilemma reached its boiling point.
Holtby allowed three goals on the first nine shots he faced in the Capitals’ 4-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday night. He was then replaced by Grubauer less than six minutes into the second period — the third time he has been yanked early in his past six starts and the fourth time since the beginning of February. As Washington clings to its slim Metropolitan Division lead — the Capitals haven’t won three straight games since early January — Coach Barry Trotz seems to be leaning toward starting Grubauer more often as Holtby works through his recent struggles.
“He hasn’t had a real good stretch,” Trotz said. “He’s going to work with our goaltending coaches and get his game in order. He’s won a lot of games for us. He’s an elite goaltender in this league. Everybody goes through some dry spells, and he’s having one right now, really.”
Trotz was then asked if he would continue to stick with Holtby as the No. 1 goaltender.
“I think just like anything, we’ll make that decision based on that he’s played a lot of games and won a lot of games,” Trotz said. “So because he’s No. 1 doesn’t mean you don’t go with Grubi for a bit just so [Holtby] can settle his game. We’ll sit down with [goaltending coach Scott Murray] just to see what the best thing for the long haul is.”
Under Trotz, Holtby has been one of the steadiest goaltenders in the league. He played a league-leading 73 games in Trotz’s first season in Washington in 2014-15. He won the Vezina Trophy the next year as the NHL’s top netminder after his 48-win campaign tied Martin Brodeur’s single-season record. He was a finalist for the award again last year when he finished with a .925 save percentage and a 2.07 goals against average.
But while Holtby started this season well, keeping the Capitals afloat in the first half as the team incorporated two rookie defensemen and weathered injuries, his play has fallen off behind a team that’s allowing more shots on goal than any other season under Trotz. Holtby had 22 wins through his first 30 appearances, seemingly poised for his fourth straight 40-win campaign. But since the start of the calendar year, Holtby is 7-7-4 with an .888 save percentage and a 3.75 goals against average. His numbers were even worse in February, when he lost six straight starts, a career-worst stretch. Though the Capitals’ play in front of Holtby has often been flawed, Grubauer has been playing behind an identical roster with better success: a .937 save percentage and a 1.97 goals against average since Jan. 1.
In an unfortunate combination, as Washington has allowed among the most high-danger shots against in the league, Holtby has the second-worst five-on-five high-danger save percentage (.764) among goalies who have played at least 1,200 minutes this season, according to NHL statistical site Corsica. Grubauer has an .878 save percentage in those situations, though the sample size is smaller. He now might get an opportunity to prove himself with more playing time.
“I feel for [Holtby],” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “He’s trying like heck. For the most part, he’s playing pretty well. We haven’t given him a fair shake, I don’t think. I think he can play better, but we haven’t given him a fair shake in front of him. Grubi’s going good. We’ll have to play better in front of Holts, and I think he’ll work himself out of it and be a real top-notch goaltender again real soon.”
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