LOS ANGELES — The two Washington Capitals goaltenders would occasionally have a conference on the bench during stoppages. Philipp Grubauer would skate over to where Braden Holtby was sitting on the end closest to the net. The roles are usually flipped, but Thursday night’s game marked the first of a temporary regime change.
With Holtby struggling of late, Grubauer got the starting nod against the Los Angeles Kings in a move intended to give Holtby a break to work on his game. But it doesn’t much matter who’s in net when the Capitals have just one goal through two games. Washington lost, 3-1, and this three-game California swing is off to an 0-2 start after the team was shut out Tuesday night in Anaheim. Down just one goal, the Capitals had back-to-back power plays midway through the third period but couldn’t capitalize.
The Capitals haven’t won in Los Angeles since 2005, and they can ill afford another loss on Saturday in San Jose. Washington has already fallen behind the Pittsburgh Penguins atop the Metropolitan Division, and the team has just a five-point cushion on the first wild card team.
Considering Grubauer’s history against the Kings — a .960 save percentage and 1.34 goals against average in three appearances before Thursday — he might have been scheduled to start this game regardless of how Holtby fared in Anaheim. But against the Ducks, Holtby allowed three goals on the first nine shots he saw and was pulled less than six minutes into the second period — the third time he has been yanked early in his past six starts. After the game, Trotz alluded to Grubauer possibly playing more. “Because [Holtby’s] No. 1 doesn’t mean you don’t go with Grubi for a bit just so [Holtby] can settle his game,” Trotz said.
Since the start of the calendar year, Holtby is 7-7-4 with an .888 save percentage and a 3.75 goals against average. His numbers were even worse in February, when he lost six straight starts, a career-worst stretch. Though the Capitals’ play in front of Holtby has often been flawed, Grubauer has been playing behind an identical roster with better success: a .937 save percentage and a 1.97 goals against average since Jan. 1.
“Obviously, things haven’t been going the way we’ve wanted them to the last little bit here personally,” Holtby said Thursday morning. “That’s the way the business goes. You earn playing time and earn games by succeeding and helping the team win, and that’s something I need to do better. So, it’s good. It makes me earn it, and it rewards Grubi for playing extremely well the last stretch — and a big reason we’re still right at the top of our division. For me, it’s just you take everything as an opportunity to learn from the experience. You use the couple days to just work as hard as you can, work to feel as comfortable as you can and clear your mind and make sure the next time I play, I’m ready to just give the team the best chance to win that I can.”
Holtby had been one of the league’s steadiest goaltenders under Trotz before this year — three straight 40-win campaigns and a Vezina Trophy finalist two years in a row, winning it in 2016. Behind a defense that’s allowed more than 32 shots per game and among the most high-danger shots per game, Holtby’s struggles couldn’t come at a worse time for a Capitals team that hasn’t won three games in a row since the first week of January.
“We’ll probably get a little reset for him,” Trotz said before the game. “I think just like every elite goaltender, they go through stretches. You look around the league, a couple of the big names have always gone through that throughout their career. And it’s actually probably good for Holts. It’s another thing he has to work through as an elite goaltender. It goes pretty good for you sometimes, and then when it doesn’t, you try to find the answers. Once you go through that, if it happens again later in your career, you can correct it.”
Though Grubauer has fared better than Holtby behind Washington’s oft-leaky blueline this season, he fell victim to it Thursday night. Forward T.J. Oshie’s errant pass on an attempted clear out led to a defensive-zone turnover with less than five minutes left in the first period. Oshie was then caught on the wrong side of Jeff Carter as he pushed a rebound through Grubauer’s legs. The puck trickled through the crease, and as Grubauer attempted to grab it before it crossed the goal line, he inadvertently pushed it across with his blocker.
Rookie Jakub Vrana tied the game when he and Oshie crashed the net, and Vrana used some impressive hand-eye coordination to bat in a high rebound from Oshie’s shot, tying the game 5:52 into the second period. That ended a span of 115 minutes for the Capitals without a goal.
But less than four minutes later, with defenseman Brooks Orpik covering Kings forward Trevor Lewis on a rush, Lewis got multiple whacks in front of the net untouched. Grubauer stopped the first one, the second went off the goalie, deflected off Lewis’s stick and then into the netting, lifting the Kings to a 2-1 lead through two periods.
Late in the third, with Grubauer on the bench, a Kyle Clifford empty-net goal sealed the result.