VANCOUVER — Last year, in what was Philipp Grubauer’s first season as a full-time NHLer, the goaltender played in what Washington Capitals Coach Barry Trotz referred to as “junk assignments.” The games were often the second of a back-to-back, when the team didn’t always play well in front of Grubauer, typically tired from being on the ice the night before and then having to travel.
After Grubauer had a strong start to this season with his first NHL shutout against the Colorado Avalanche, Trotz decided to change last season’s routine by playing Grubauer in the front end of a back-to-back against Vancouver on Saturday night. Grubauer had earned it in a way, and with last year still fresh for the Capitals, the team felt like it still owed its backup netminder.
“We have so much confidence in both of our goalies,” T.J. Oshie said. “I’ve said this before, last year, that I think we hung out Grubi to dry a little bit on a couple of amazing games where we couldn’t get him the win. So, now, when he’s playing like he is, it’s great to get him a win.”
Grubauer again dazzled with 23-save performance against Vancouver in a 5-2 win for Washington. Though the Capitals had the puck in the offensive zone for most of the night, much of what Grubauer faced came off the rush, and he handled it well. Trotz praised Grubauer for making the timely stops, that he held off the Canucks until Washington got a 2-0 lead and then he made the saves to keep the Capitals ahead from there.
It also helped that Grubauer got some run support, as in the 16 games Grubauer started last season, Washington scored more than two goals just three times.
“Grubi made some big saves at timely points in the game that if he doesn’t make those saves, we might not have the two points,” Tom Wilson said. “Two-on-ones, he’s coming across making phenomenal saves, so he was good tonight. We’re very fortunate to have two great goaltenders. Last year, we didn’t really pick up the points when need be with Grubi in, so good to get him those tonight.”
Grubauer’s strong start to the season is a good sign for the Capitals, as with the condensed schedule this season because of a new bye week, Trotz has indicated that Grubauer will be playing more often. Grubauer saw action in 22 games last season, and he had an 8-9-1 record with a 2.32 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.
The good games are also fortuitous for Grubauer, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. He said a busy offseason has helped him feel sharp early on.
“I didn’t make too many changes,” Grubauer said. “I mean, it’s kind of nice to get the win and the shutout there. I think what really helped is the early start in August with the Olympic qualifications and being in the World Cup. Participating in the World Cup, you have the best shooters in front of you, and it helps you seeing the puck when you came back to Washington. It really helped me this year, coming back and seeing the puck better.”
>>> The Capitals had their first experience of the season with the coach’s challenge on Saturday night, as a Washington second period goal was overturned after video review. Vancouver Coach Willie Desjardins challenged there was goaltender interference by Nicklas Backstrom on Jacob Markstrom.
“I didn’t agree,” Trotz said. “I know there was contact because of Backstrom running into Markstrom, but we felt that Markstrom actually just knocked it in himself. I mean, I don’t think Backstrom had anything to do with him not being able to stop that puck. I just don’t think he knew where it was and he knocked it in with his own stick. That’s difficult. I’m always going to be biased with any goal they take away from us. The league does a good job all of the time with that. It’s a learning curve for us all of the time because I’m looking at it, and I’m thinking it’s a goal, and you look at the factors. I don’t disagree or agree with it; it’s just the call.”
>>> Trotz reshuffled the lines before the Capitals’ game against Vancouver, and after the team scored five goals and was pleased with its performance, expect Washington to display the same forward trios against the Calgary Flames on Sunday night.
The middle-six forwards of the lineup looked especially strong, as the second line of center Evgeny Kuznetsov with wingers Marcus Johansson and Wilson scored two even-strength goals. A trio of center Lars Eller and wingers Andre Burakovsky and Oshie had a bevy of offensive zone time throughout the game and was rewarded with a goal in the third period.
“We were putting pucks to good areas,” Oshie said. “I think we were coming as a line, as a group of three, when we were entering the zone, which is easier to read and easier to get the defense to back up a little bit. I think we were winning a lot of loose pucks, a lot of puck battles, and supporting each other after that. So, it was a good night for our line. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever played with Burky and Lars, too, so it was fun out there.”
Said Trotz: “I liked all of the lines. There really wasn’t a line that I didn’t really care for.”
>>> The Capitals didn’t have a morning skate in Calgary on Sunday, so it’s unclear what the lineup will be against the Flames. After Grubauer played on Saturday night, expect Braden Holtby to be back in net. Before departing for western Canada, Trotz indicated defenseman Taylor Chorney would be making his season debut at some point on the trip, so it’s possible he makes an appearance on the blue line.
Here’s what Washington’s lineup looked like on Saturday night in Vancouver:
Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Justin Williams
Marcus Johansson-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson
Andre Burakovsky-Lars Eller-T.J. Oshie
Zach Sanford-Jay Beagle-Brett Connolly
Karl Alzner-Matt Niskanen
Dmitry Orlov-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Nate Schmidt