It was so low that it could have been mistaken for boos, the sound of Capital One Arena uniformly belting “Gru” after every save as encouragement. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer had had a rough start to the season, skating off as the loser every time he had been in net. His 26th birthday is Saturday, and tapping him to start against the NHL’s best team Friday seemed like Coach Barry Trotz’s cruel idea of a present.
Consistency has been an issue for Washington, good wins often followed by bad losses. This marked the Capitals’ second straight win, a second game in a row in which they have shown flashes of the talented team that won the most regular season games over the past three years. On Friday night, they did it against this season’s early Stanley Cup favorite.
“The team did unbelievable,” Grubauer said. “If we play like this the whole year, we are going to be really tough to beat.”
For how well Grubauer has played in some losing efforts this season, it was sort of poetic that his first win came in a game in which he didn’t have much work. He faced just 16 shots through two periods, while the Capitals put up 30.
But after a good start, Washington flatlined in the third period, failing to record a shot for the first 9:30 as the Lightning fired away at Grubauer. That’s when he was at his best, the recipient of several low and appreciative chants of his name from the stands. He finished with 25 saves.
“It’s not an easy position to be a backup goalie,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “He’s kept a good attitude throughout this, even though we haven’t played well in front of him. I think everyone’s smiles were a little bit bigger tonight for him. He played really well, and he earned it, too.”
Grubauer typically starts the second game of back-to-back sets, when the team in front of him often is fatigued and sluggish, but Trotz said the goaltender “deserved” a start at home, so he put Grubauer in net against the NHL-best Lightning, with Braden Holtby slated to play at Toronto on Saturday.
In Grubauer’s previous five starts, the Capitals never played with a lead or supplied more than two goals. On Friday night, Washington did both.
After the score was tied at 1 following one period, forward Devante Smith-Pelly gave Grubauer a lead to work with late in the second. He drove to the net as Jay Beagle unfurled the shot, and he was in perfect position to swat in the rebound. That marked Smith-Pelly’s first goal in nine games and his first point in eight.
Beagle then added much-needed insurance, an empty-net goal with 2:08 left. The Lightning had been averaging 3.95 goals entering this contest, and Grubauer allowed just one.
“He’s been standing on his head,” Beagle said. “It’s just unfortunate the way it’s been going for him at the beginning of the season, but he’s been standing on his head and playing unreal. He obviously deserves a big win, and he was huge again tonight. Made some big saves at some big times.”
While the Capitals find themselves in the middle of a crowded standings picture in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning is the only team to have separated from the pack. Entering Friday’s game, Tampa Bay had 34 points in 21 games — nine more than Washington in two fewer games. Its top line has MVP candidates in Steven Stamkos (league-leading 36 points) and Nikita Kucherov (league-leading 17 goals).
Tampa Bay has dominated the start of the season the same way Washington did the previous two. When Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik was called for hooking 44 seconds into the game and Kucherov banked in a power-play goal off Vladislav Namestnikov, it looked like it could be a long night for Washington.
“It went through my mind where it’s like, ‘We can’t let this happen to Grubi again,’ ” Niskanen said.
But after the Lightning scored just 1:22 into the game, the Capitals controlled play for the rest of the period, peppering goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy with 16 shots on goal. Tampa Bay’s high-powered top line has rightfully gotten a lot of hype, but it was Washington’s No. 1 trio that was most noticeable. Alex Ovechkin’s nine shots on goal were more than Kucherov, Stamkos and Namestnikov had combined (four).
Center Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin were reunited in Wednesday’s 5-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators after playing on separate lines for the season’s first 22 games, and along with right wing Tom Wilson, the threesome had another strong performance Friday night. On a three-on-two with less than two minutes left in the first period, Backstrom drove down the center of the ice, enabling Wilson to get a pass over to Ovechkin in his left-faceoff-circle office.
Ovechkin’s one-timer made it a tie game after an eventful first period. And that was the 573rd goal of Ovechkin’s career, moving him into a tie with Mike Bossy for 21st on the all-time scoring list.
“We just continued pushing,” Ovechkin said. “We moved our legs. We did the right things.”