When the final words to the national anthem had been sung, goaltender Philipp Grubauer turned around, leaned over and stared ahead. Behind him, the Washington Capitals readied themselves for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. All around him, Verizon Center roared, the first of many such moments Friday night. But Grubauer waited, motionless. Five seconds passed. Ten seconds. Fifteen seconds. It was the first NHL playoff game of his career. He wasn’t soaking in the moment. He was focusing, like he did before all the rest.
“Amazing,” he said later. “Amazing. All I can say is hell of a game.”
The circumstances called for a man of unflinching resolve, and in a 4-3 victory the Capitals found their answer in the form of the first German-born netminder to ever start a playoff game in goal, the 23-year-old who had arrived to the rink still unsure whether he would even see the ice. The drama had unspooled all day, beginning with the announcement of Grubauer’s recall, frothing when starter Braden Holtby missed the morning skate, lingering until the Capitals charged onto the ice for pregame warmups, led by the option who had spent almost the entire season in the minor leagues.
Forward Tom Wilson, who played 7-plus minutes in his return from a head injury, said he knew Holtby would miss Game 2 with an illness when he came to the rink and saw only Grubauer and Justin Peters’ names on the extra-wide locker stalls. Grubauer said he was warned in the morning that he would be the choice if Holtby couldn’t go, but still had no clue when he entered the building.
Team trainers and doctors had stayed in contact with Holtby throughout the afternoon, Coach Barry Trotz said, and eventually Holtby made the decision himself. A bug had raged even before Game 1, likely worsened in the 4-1 loss. After a season defined by remarkable endurance, Holtby judged himself unfit to play. The spotlight, instead, would belong to Grubauer.
“I can’t put myself in those shoes,” Trotz said. “That’s the great trait of a goalie is that you’re not overwhelmed by the moment or the situation. That’s what I liked about Philipp is he came in and played and did a good job.”
Indeed, when Grubauer meandered through the horde of cameras awaiting his presence, he sounded like he was being interviewed after finishing his homework. He had only faced 21 shots and allowed three to strike the net, but none cracked him during the critical third period. He had anchored the Capitals toward tying the series at 1-1. How in the world did he ready himself for this?
“Just like every other game,” he said. “I prepared and as soon as the puck drops it’s all about business.”
And what went through his mind after Kyle Okposo cranked a top-shelf shot during the second period that, once again, gave the Islanders a two-goal lead?
“Nothing,” he said. ‘Make the next save. That’s all.”
And what advice did the Capitals offer him before the biggest game of his life?
“No advice,” he said. “I’ve played enough games last year and one game this year. Just like every other game.”
Sure. Whatever you say. And so we turn to his teammates, the ones who had spent all season calling Holtby “the backbone” of their team, and now found themselves grasping for more superlatives to describe the newest hero.
“Great job,” forward Jay Beagle said. “I mean, unreal. It was a game where there’s alto of pressure, he gets called up and he just stood on his head. He was awesome.”
“He’s a great goalie,” Wilson said. “We’ve seen it. Over the past two years he’s come up and played well for us. We weren’t really expecting anything different. He comes in and we play the same way and he did his job and made some big saves back there for us.”
“He earned some pride,” defenseman Mike Green said. “He played unbelievable tonight. He came up and made some big saves.”
The last time Grubauer stood inside the home dressing room, he packed fast and returned to Hershey after a shootout win over Anaheim, a one-time-only recall as a test subject in early February, to see what he could do in his 20th NHL appearance. Now, he would join the Capitals on their flight to Long Island, where Game 3 awaited. Holtby would come too, his status still uncertain. Trotz was “more optimistic than I was this morning” that Holtby could start Sunday afternoon, “but we’ll have to see,” joking that the Long Island air and sunshine would do him good.
Still, with Grubauer backstopping the miraculous comeback, thrust into the heat of the first round and emerging still calm and collected, the Capitals found confidence in the alternative too.
“I put a lot of pressure on me, wanted to win this game, and the team needs that,” Grubauer said. “If we would’ve lost this game, it would’ve been 2-0 for those guys and it’s tough to come back. It was a hell of a game today.”