BUFFALO — Philipp Grubauer approached the semi-circle of reporters, taking his last sip of Gatorade before firmly setting it down in a locker stall. The frustration was evident and understandable. He decided not to bother beating around the bush.
“I’m sick of [expletive] losing,” he said.
Every time the Washington Capitals have played a second game in as many nights this season, Grubauer has been the starting goaltender. The result has been four losses, the latest of which was Tuesday night’s 3-1 decision against the Buffalo Sabres. In those four losses, Washington (8-7-1) has managed just five goals, never playing with a lead and not giving Grubauer much of a chance.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Grubauer said. “. . . It’s all I can do, worry about the puck and stop the next puck and give the guys a chance to win and go from situation to situation.”
Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin tied the game late in the second period with a wrist shot from the slot, but Buffalo’s game-winning goal came less than four minutes into the third. Sabres forward Benoit Pouliot skated from one end of the ice to the other on a rush, toe-dragging around Capitals forward Jakub Vrana for an easy entry into Washington’s zone before beating Grubauer with a laser into the top of the net.
“That’s where we needed a big save by Grubs there, when we sort of broke down a little bit there,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “I feel bad for Grubi because Grubi has given us some really good games, and we haven’t given him enough support offensively to get a win or get points.”
Suddenly trailing by a goal again, the Capitals didn’t do themselves any favors. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov took a slashing penalty on the shift after Pouliot’s goal, and less than a minute after that infraction expired, defenseman John Carlson was called for delay of game after sailing a puck over the glass. The Sabres’ power play didn’t score on those opportunities, but the penalties disrupted the flow of the game in a crucial moment for the Capitals.
Though Washington’s play improved in the second half of the game, the team seemed to be sleep-walking through the first half as Buffalo peppered Grubauer with shots and the Capitals couldn’t generate many of their own. Less than three minutes into the second period, Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik had a turnover behind the goal line and Sabres forward Evander Kane scored with a snap shot 10 feet from the net. At that point, Washington had just four shots on goal despite facing a banged-up Buffalo team playing without four of its top-six defensemen.
“We need more offense,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “Maybe we need to go to the front of the net a little bit more. Maybe shoot the puck a little bit more and create those second chances. I can just speak for myself, but I’ve got to be better.”
Buffalo’s final goal was scored into an empty net, and Grubauer finished with 29 saves. In his past two starts, he has saved 61 of the 65 shots he has seen. Meanwhile, the Capitals have managed just one goal in each outing.
“We all feel terrible for him,” Backstrom said. “He’s been playing awesome the games he’s been in. We wanted to give him a win, but unfortunately that wasn’t tonight. But we will give him a win because he deserves it. He deserves better.”
In his third season as Braden Holtby’s understudy, Grubauer has established himself as one of the top backup goaltenders in the league. In 24 outings last season, he had a 13-6-2 record with a .926 save percentage and a 2.04 goals against average. With the Capitals’ lineup not as deep going into the season and now down four players because of injuries just 16 games in, Grubauer has had the challenge of keeping the team afloat in the second game of back-to-back sets, when fatigue lends itself to sloppy play in front of him. He made 15 saves in the first period alone.
He has done his job, and on Tuesday night, his teammates regretted not giving him any support on the ice.
“It’s really frustrating,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “He works real hard in practice. He’s a great teammate. He’s a hell of a goaltender. It sucks when you can’t get him that win. He’s going to keep showing up for us, and we’re going to hopefully win here soon.”