WINNIPEG — Goaltender Pheonix Copley wears contacts during games and practices, but they dry his eyes out, so off the ice he sports black-rimmed glasses that have fans commenting on his Clark Kent-like appearance. When he was playing for Chicago in the American Hockey League, the Wolves even took a photo of him ripping his dress shirt off to reveal the team’s logo underneath.
The Washington Capitals might need him to be Superman for the near future. Braden Holtby got hurt during an informal on-ice session Wednesday morning, a nightmare scenario for a team that’s thin on goaltending experience behind him. The Capitals gambled on Holtby, a Vezina Trophy winner in 2016 and a finalist again in 2017, staying healthy as he has for the past four seasons when they chose not to pursue a more veteran understudy.
Holtby’s undisclosed upper-body injury isn’t expected to be serious, but if Copley has to start a third straight game, it will be a revealing challenge for the rookie who has just eight games of NHL experience. After making 26 saves against the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, Copley was pressed into duty again the next night after Holtby was a late scratch, and he played admirably in the Capitals’ 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
The Capitals are expected to recall prospect goaltender Ilya Samsonov on Friday morning, indicating that it’s unlikely Holtby will be healthy enough to dress for the team’s game against the Colorado Avalanche. Samsonov, 21, is the organization’s 2015 first-round pick, and this is his first season playing hockey in North America. In a twist, the Capitals’ goaltending depth is getting tested as the team faces the Avalanche with goaltender Philipp Grubauer, whom the team traded away this summer after he spent three years backing up Holtby.
“That’s one of the things coming into the year that we had to look after and see how that was going to play itself out,” Coach Todd Reirden said Tuesday.
The Capitals returned nearly their entire roster from last season’s Stanley Cup team, but backup goaltender was the one question mark. Grubauer proved essential to the team’s success a year ago; when Holtby struggled in the second half of the season, Grubauer played more than him and kept Washington afloat in the standings. It allowed Holtby to work through the bumps in his game, and he was ultimately at his best in the playoffs.
But at 26, Grubauer asked the Capitals to help him get an opportunity to be a No. 1 netminder elsewhere, so Washington traded him and veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik for a second-round pick. Grubauer was so popular among teammates that they chanted his name when he returned to Washington for the championship ring ceremony just days before the season.
The Capitals considered themselves spoiled with last season’s tandem, and while Copley lacked Grubauer’s credentials, Washington awarded him the job in preseason and figured he would grow into it as the year progressed. If he didn’t, it was a position the team could upgrade through trade without too much disruption to the rest of the roster.
The Capitals expected to play Holtby more early in the season, and Holtby said he wanted more starts than last season’s 54. But through 18 games, Copley now has six appearances, playing with roughly the same regularity as Grubauer did in that same span a year ago.
“The more experience you get, the more comfortable and the more used to this level you get,” Copley said. “It’s just something I want to keep working on and keep adjusting and keep getting better and better.”
Copley was shelled in his first start this season, a 6-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils, but his play has improved steadily over the past five weeks. Before Wednesday night’s loss in Winnipeg, Copley had been on a four-game standings point streak, and he has a .925 save percentage in his past five appearances. Reirden said some of that is due to the team’s play, particularly the defensive-zone coverage, getting better a month into the season, but Copley also has had to mature into the position sooner than anticipated.
“We’ve kind of been working on lateral stuff and staying on pucks going lateral and kind of making the game come at me rather than going side to side,” Copley said. “It’s something we’ll continue to work on, and it’s been productive. It’s a work in progress.”
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