When Capitals Coach Barry Trotz has suggested bucking convention, perhaps playing both of his goaltenders in the upcoming postseason, he has mentioned asking Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan for his opinion. After all, Pittsburgh has won the past two Stanley Cups with both Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray spending time in net during both championship runs.
“It can work because it did,” Sullivan said. “But I don’t think there’s any one formula to have success. So you try to maximize the personnel that you have that gives your team the best chance to win.”
But Sullivan’s goaltending decisions were largely forced by injury. Murray wouldn’t have gotten an opportunity two years ago if Fleury hadn’t been concussed when the playoffs started, and had Murray not injured his hamstring in warm-ups of the very first game of last postseason, Fleury would not have been in net. Both played well, as it was Fleury who helped the Penguins beat the Capitals in the second round a year ago while Murray went on to backstop Pittsburgh through the final two rounds.
As for an actual goaltending rotation where two healthy netminders alternate playoff starts, that hasn’t worked since the 1971-72 Boston Bruins won a Stanley Cup with Gerry Cheevers playing in eight games that postseason and Eddie Johnston in net for the other seven. Trotz is seemingly still undecided between Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer, and with two regular-season games left, he said he’ll continue the rotation, starting one Thursday against the Nashville Predators with the other playing Saturday against the New Jersey Devils.
But then Trotz will have to settle on a goaltender for Game 1 of the playoffs. He’s indicated he’s at least open to the idea of playing both Holtby and Grubauer in the postseason, regardless of who he picks to start the first game.
“We feel we can get both guys going,” Trotz said. “There hasn’t been much of a difference between the two of them, so we’re going that way. We’re going to need both goalies, and they’re both playing good right now, so I’m very happy with our goaltending situation.”
The past two games might have tightened the competition. Against rival Pittsburgh, Trotz started Grubauer, a vote of confidence for the goaltender considered his No. 2 for the past three years. Grubauer had never started a game against the Penguins before, and considering it’s possible Washington and Pittsburgh will meet in the second round for a third straight year, Trotz may have wanted to see how Grubauer would acquit himself. In a game with the division crown at stake, Grubauer made a statement, a 36-save performance in a 3-1 Washington win.
Grubauer had been steadily building to an eye-opening game on a big stage like that. Since he won his first game of the season in late November, Grubauer has a .940 save percentage with a 1.84 goals against average in his past 26 appearances. As Holtby struggled through February and Grubauer got more responsibility in March, he then showed he could maintain the success while playing consistently. Since March 1, Grubauer has started in nine games, and he has a .934 save percentage with a 1.99 goals against average.
“I’m not surprised by his play,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “I’ve said it all along: We’ve got two No. 1 goalies, and everyone else is starting to realize that now.”
Less than 24 hours after Grubauer impressed in Pittsburgh, Holtby answered with 34 saves in a 4-2 win in St. Louis. The Capitals were playing on tired legs, and with Washington having just clinched the division title on Sunday, the Blues were the more motivated team, desperate for a win to move into a wild-card position in the Western Conference. Though Holtby was 2-5-2 in February with a miserable .873 save percentage and 4.62 goals against average, he’s improved since Trotz took him out of net for a week last month. Trotz dubbed it a “reset” for Holtby to work through his struggles.
“There’s no clarity in the goaltending position,” Holtby said. “You just play the games you’re asked and do everything you can to help the team win. That’s both Phil and myself’s goals, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
“It’s like anything else,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “Some guys go in and out of the lineup and goaltenders are switching back and forth. It’s obviously good to have that safety valve to have two really good goalies there.”
But teams typically settle on one before the playoffs. The Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars both had successful goaltending tandems that shared the load during the 2015-16 regular season, but it didn’t work for either team in the postseason. Anaheim’s John Gibson was initially tabbed to start the playoffs, but after he lost the first two games, he was eventually benched for Frederick Andersen. The Ducks lost that series in seven games. The Stars fell short of the conference finals, starting Kari Lehtonen for 10 games and Antti Niemi for three. Teams have successfully played two goaltenders in deep playoff runs before, but like the Penguins, those situations were typically forced by injury or poor play.
Trotz has said he will factor into his decision the Capitals’ ultimate playoff opponent. He’ll consider which goaltender is hotter in the moment. He might feel some loyalty to Holtby, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist who has helped the Capitals win so many games the past four years. But the trouble with touting the strength of a tandem is that as soon as one stumbles, it invites speculation as to when the other might get in net.
“I’m not thinking about it,” Holtby said. “I’m trying to improve my game every day, and I’ve always been a big believer in, you leave those decisions to other people and you focus on your job and your job only. That’s stopping pucks and helping this team win. That’s my only goal.”