Sullivan would be the Pittsburgh Penguins coach, who used two goaltenders en route to their second straight Stanley Cup championship last year. That situation resulted from an injury to starter Matt Murray at the outset of the postseason, which put Marc-Andre Fleury in net for the first two rounds.
The Capitals have two healthy netminders with Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer, and Trotz indicated Monday the two could split the final 10 games of the regular season.
“Whoever’s going good and who we feel is the hottest at the right time we’re going to go with,” Trotz said.
The past two years, this stretch of the season has been uneventful, a slow march to a highly anticipated playoff run with the league’s best record already secured.
“Every year in September, I say this is the time I wish we could fast-forward to the playoff hockey,” forward Tom Wilson said.
This season, the final 10 regular season games will have significant impact on playoff seeding, with Washington just two points ahead of the Penguins for first in the Metropolitan Division, but they could also provide a final testing ground for the Capitals’ lingering questions around their starting netminder.
“There’s no sense riding one,” Trotz said. “Holts is coming back and looking better every game, and Grubi’s played pretty well for a long stretch, so why not have both of them going? We’ve ridden Holts hard for a couple years, one of the things that people question: Do we use him too much? Well, we can’t say we did it this year.”
Grubauer has started five of the Capitals’ past six games, and he has a .939 save percentage and a 1.64 goals against average in his past 22 appearances. But he was shelled for five goals on 34 shots in his most recent start, a 6-3 loss Sunday at Philadelphia. Even before that game, Trotz said Holtby, a Vezina Trophy finalist the past two years and the winner in 2015-16, would start against the Dallas Stars on Tuesday in Capital One Arena. Holtby’s most recent start was encouraging, a 6-3 win against the New York Islanders on Friday, but his season numbers — a 3.03 goals against average and a .906 save percentage — are the worst of his career.
“I try to stay out of the question,” Holtby said of the two-goaltender rotation. “I play when I’m asked and then try and be ready whenever.”
Perhaps the first indicator of whom Trotz considers the top goaltender will come April 1, when the Capitals play in Pittsburgh in a game that could play a major role in deciding the division crown. The Penguins have the easiest schedule down the stretch when averaging their remaining opponents’ points percentages, but Washington has the benefit of an upcoming road trip against three teams well out of the playoff chase: Detroit, Montreal and the New York Rangers.
The division winner will own home ice for the first two rounds of the playoffs, a significant advantage for whichever team seizes it. The Capitals sport a 25-9-2 record at home, compared to a 16-15-5 road mark. The Penguins are 26-8-1 when skating in Pittsburgh but 15-18-4 on the road.
“I just want to see us be consistent,” Trotz said. “Just everybody playing at a very consistent level, playing for each other, playing hard and not trying to ease into anything. Play the game that’s presented, but also try to dictate your game over the opposition rather than just, say, throw our sticks on the ice and let’s play and see what happens and just sort of will yourself over the other team a little bit more.”
Consistency hasn’t been a strength of this team this season — “It was a lot of ups and downs,” center Nicklas Backstrom said — but Washington’s play has seemingly stabilized of late. Sunday’s loss in Philadelphia snapped a four-game winning streak, the Capitals’ longest stretch of wins since the first week of January. In March, the team has allowed among the fewest shots against in the league, 28.3 per game, which is comparable to last year’s stingy team. Injuries to defenseman Brooks Orpik (lower body) and center Evgeny Kuznetsov (upper body) could hurt that progress, though both are considered “day-to-day.”
“I thought defensively we’ve cleaned up a lot of areas ever since the California trip [earlier this month] and just before,” Trotz said. “That’s gotten better, but we still have some individuals that still go into different modes. We’ll have stretches where we’re spot on, and we’ll have stretches where we’ll look like we haven’t been doing the same things. We’ve just got to get everybody on the same page — and we have been for the most part — then get our goaltending real strong.
“We feel that’s going to come around, and it has. Get a few wins and go from there.”