Philipp Grubauer walked into the Capitals’ dressing room Tuesday, removing his mask and his practice jersey before taking a deep breath as reporters gathered. He asked for time to pull on a sweatshirt, then he stood tall as camera lights flashed to life in front of him. A few stalls over, a teammate chuckled at the scene.
“He must be the starter,” forward Brett Connolly said.
Grubauer then ended any speculation, confirming he would be in net when Washington opens its postseason Thursday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“It’s a privilege to start, for sure,” Grubauer said. “But it’s just like any other game. You treat it as Game 1 [of the regular season] or Game 82. It’s not going to change any of my approach.”
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz met with his two goaltenders Monday after he made the decision in consultation with his coaching staff. Ultimately, as impressive as Braden Holtby’s body of work has been over the past four years, twice a Vezina Trophy finalist and winner of the award for best goaltender in 2016, Grubauer’s body of work since November trumped all else. After three years as Holtby’s understudy, Grubauer has at least temporarily passed him in the pecking order, anointed the Capitals’ No. 1 netminder for the start of the playoffs.
“I just think that Grubi deserves the opportunity,” Trotz said. “Trust me, it wasn’t an easy decision.”
As Grubauer answered questions about what will be just the second playoff start of his career, Holtby took a seat at his stall on the opposite side of Washington’s dressing room. This season was expected to be more challenging for him after the team lost three veteran defensemen as part of the summer roster turnover. Two rookies were in the lineup for most of the season, and Holtby not only faced more shots than any other season under Trotz, he was also tested with more high-danger shots. He weathered that barrage during the first half of the season, but his play declined in February, when he went 2-5-2 with an .873 save percentage and 4.62 goals against average.
On March 6, Holtby allowed three goals on nine shots against the Anaheim Ducks before he was pulled for a third time in six starts. He was visibly frustrated as he got to Washington’s bench, composing himself in the tunnel to the locker room for several minutes before joining his teammates. Grubauer replaced him in net and then started the next four games, a period Trotz called a “reset” for Holtby. But it also represented an opportunity for Grubauer to show he could sustain his impressive numbers while playing more consistently. Trotz eventually started rotating both Holtby and Grubauer, but the tipping point might have come when Trotz started Grubauer in Pittsburgh earlier this month, a rivalry game in which Washington had the chance to win the Metropolitan Division. Grubauer made 36 saves in the 3-1 win.
“It didn’t do anything to hurt, that’s for sure,” Trotz said Tuesday when asked about the performance.
“It helps playing more and more,” Grubauer said. “The more you get on the ice, the more experience you get. You see different situations and different teams. If you sit on the bench, you can get good from watching, but you’ve got to experience the situation and get the ice time, for sure. It helped a lot to get a couple of games in a row, too.”
Grubauer started 10 of the Capitals’ last 17 games. In that stretch, he compiled a 7-3-0 record with a .925 save percentage and a 2.31 goals against average. In the 27 appearances since he recorded his first win in late November, against the Eastern Conference-best Tampa Bay Lightning, Grubauer has been the steadiest goaltender in the league with a .937 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average.
While Trotz named Grubauer the starter for Thursday night, he said the team will go “game by game” in its goaltending decisions, inviting speculation that Trotz could quickly switch back to Holtby if Grubauer struggles. Holtby has started in 59 playoff games for Washington with a 29-30 record, a .932 save percentage and a 2.00 goals against average.
“You talk to Braden, and all he wants to do is win,” Trotz said. “He says, ‘If you put me in the net, my job is to stop the puck. If I get that opportunity, I’ll stop the puck.’ It’s all about team for him, so he was really good [handling the news], as I expected.”
Said Holtby: “It’s a coach’s decision who plays or not. It doesn’t have anything to do with me. So, I just focus on one practice at a time and try to be a positive influence on the team and go from there.”
Holtby often serves as a sounding board for Grubauer when the latter goaltender is on the ice. During stoppages, Grubauer will often skate over to where Holtby is seated, asking if another teammate was open for a pass on a recent play, or if he should have rimmed the puck around the boards in one direction instead of the other. Sometimes, they’ll just share a laugh at how a player fell a few shifts earlier.
“It’s a good problem, and it’s not even a problem. It’s a blessing,” Trotz said. “From my standpoint, you don’t know how things change in this business so quickly. It’s a sickness, a guy rolls an ankle, or someone falls on him — there’s so many thousands of ways that things can change in an instant. And we’ve got backup in that area, which we feel very comfortable with.”
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