Philipp Grubauer makes a stop against the Montreal Canadiens at Capital One Arena. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

It was a sweet moment between partners, a smiling Braden Holtby skating over to Philipp Grubauer, standing in front of his net. To celebrate Grubauer’s shutout in San Jose on Saturday, the Capitals’ first in regulation this season, Holtby kissed Grubauer on the mask, a show of support from one member of Washington’s goaltending tandem to the other. They’re teammates first and foremost, but internal competition exists, and after three-plus years without any for the Capitals’ cage, there’s some mystery of who will be the team’s top goaltender going forward.

Since Coach Barry Trotz handed the net over to Grubauer in what was billed as a “reset” period for Holtby, Grubauer has allowed just four goals in  three games, the first time he’s had three straight starts since the 2013-14 season. He’s saved 76 of the 80 shots he’s faced as Washington recorded wins against two postseason-bound Western Conference teams and moved back into first place in the Metropolitan Division. The goalies are expected to split this week’s back-to-back games against the New York Islanders, and Holtby has said that he now has to “earn” his playing time.

But if Grubauer continues to acquit himself this well as the interim No. 1 netminder, it’s fair to question just how temporary this new role might be and what it would take for Holtby to wrestle the top job back. The Capitals insist that for the time being, the starting goaltender will be a game-by-game determination.

“Phil’s playing extremely well right now,” Holtby said. “He’s giving us the best chance to win every night. It’s one of those fortunate things in an unfortunate situation. He’s been able to play extremely well. And I can take a little time to clean up a couple of things, and can clear my head, clear the team’s head with that kind of stigma that’s kind of going on with me in net. Those things happen and the biggest thing is setting the right example to the young guys and everyone on the team that we’re all in this together, no matter who is playing. We’re focused on winning games and that’s the bottom line.”

The sample size isn’t so small as just the past week. Grubauer started the season by losing his first six starts despite some strong play, but in the 20 appearances since he recorded his first win on Nov. 24 against Tampa Bay, Grubauer is 10-3-2 with a .946 save percentage and a 1.40 goals-against average. Holtby had lost seven of his past eight starts before this shift to Grubauer, and he’s been yanked from net early four times since the start of February. With Grubauer, 26, entering restricted free agency this summer, this is a sort of audition for Grubauer, an opportunity to show how he handles a heavier workload.

“I’m not trying to show off or impress anybody,” Grubauer said.

Holtby carried the Capitals throughout the start of the season, when the team was plagued with injuries and inexperience on defense. But while Grubauer has surged of late, Holtby has struggled. Going back to a Feb. 2 game in Pittsburgh, Holtby has a 3-6-2 record with an .872 save percentage and a 3.73 goals-against average. He has a .907 save percentage and a 3.03 goals-against average on the season, career-worst numbers for a goaltender who was named to the All-Star Game less than two months ago and was a Vezina Trophy finalist the past two seasons. He won the award in 2016 after tying Martin Brodeur with 48 wins in a season. The consistency he experienced, in part because he was surrounded by a talented team, was a cut above his fellow goaltenders, who have all either weathered injury or rough patches at some point during the past three seasons. Perhaps Holtby’s struggles seem worse because he’s been so steady.

Brent Johnson, an NBC Sports Washington analyst and former NHL goaltender, suggested on Twitter that Holtby’s recent struggles could be related to fatigue. During Trotz’s first season in 2014-15, Holtby started 73 games, but his workload has steadily declined with a capable backup like Grubauer around to spell him. He played in 66 games two seasons ago and then 63 last year. Holtby said he finds it “easier” when he’s playing regularly, and the coaching staff has similarly downplayed suggestions that Holtby might be tired.

“He’s been such a hard worker throughout his whole career that I think he feels more in a rhythm when he’s on the ice than the off the ice,” goaltending coach Scott Murray said. “I know he’s played a lot of games, but he knows his body really well, and he knows when to gear down a little bit.”

That’s the other challenge with a workhorse like Holtby, balancing this time off to work on his game with keeping him sharp for when he does get back in net. Over Holtby’s career, if he has more than three days of rest, he has a 2.57 goals-against average with a .915 save percentage. His numbers are best with one day of rest: .926 save percentage and a 2.18 goals-against average. But no matter the circumstance, fair or unfair, Holtby’s next start will be scrutinized and compared to Grubauer’s last as the margin for error has all but disappeared.

“A couple of things we’re working on here and there, but it’s more just the snowball effect that I just didn’t get rid of quick enough,” Holtby said. “Any time that happens, it seems that things don’t go your way. Even though sometimes you try too hard or you relax a little too much, it’s hard to find that comfortable medium where you’re not thinking, you’re just playing. As much as you can tell yourself that’s it’s all talk and mental prep, really the only way is to grind your way and work your way through it to get back. Because you don’t lose things overnight.”

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