Philipp Grubauer couldn’t watch NHL games while growing up in Rosenheim, Germany, a small town roughly 44 miles southeast of Munich, but he had access to highlights whenever his dad would buy Don Cherry’s “Rock’em Sock’em Hockey” VHS tapes.
“I always jumped on the bed and tried to copy the saves with Felix Potvin and Mike Richter,” Grubauer recalled. “And said, ‘I want to play there, too.’ ”
Long after he mimicked videos in his childhood home, Grubauer has been making the case he deserves to remain in the NHL during a lengthy stint with the Washington Capitals.
Since being recalled Nov. 30, Grubauer has managed to complicate Washington’s goaltending depth chart with consistent, strong play that has earned him six of the past nine starts and instilled confidence in the dressing room.
The Capitals headed on the road for back-to-back games Sunday in Buffalo and Monday in Ottawa with three healthy goaltenders on the roster because Grubauer, with his 5-1-1 record, 2.18 goals against average and .937 save percentage in eight appearances, has given the team its best chance to win over the past month.
“He’s been given a great opportunity here. He’s running with it as good as anybody I've seen,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “He’s getting the call most nights because of his play. You can’t take him out of the net just because he might not be the on-paper number one, but he’s sure playing like he is.”
Grubauer, a fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft, is the latest up-and-comer from Washington’s garden of homegrown goaltenders that produced Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby. He didn’t know what to expect when he was originally summoned from the American Hockey League last month after Neuvirth stepped on a puck and injured his right ankle.
But when Neuvirth required additional recovery time, the Capitals opted to give Grubauer his second career NHL start Dec. 8 at Madison Square Garden. Grubauer was outstanding, stopping all but one of the 31 shots he faced from the Rangers and unflustered by the pressure-packed environment in the self-proclaimed world’s most famous arena.
Then as Holtby struggled to find consistency in December — in five appearances this month he is 1-2-1 with a 4.92 goals against average and .863 save percentage — Grubauer seized a greater opportunity to demonstrate his abilities on an NHL stage.
“It’s just day to day for me,” Grubauer said. “I’m just looking forward to the game in Buffalo and not further. I can’t change anything. The fact that we have three goalies I know not to worry about it. Just try to practice good, play good and put up some points and get the guys a win. That’s all that matters for me.”
For as well and as steady as Grubauer has played, Coach Adam Oates has played down any hype around the 22-year-old. But that doesn’t change the fact that as the Capitals look to establish consistency themselves, the coaching staff continues to turn to Grubauer against opponents ranging from the Rangers, league-leading Anaheim Ducks or rough-and-tumble Flyers.
“He’s playing good, good for him. It’s a long season. It’s only been eight [appearances]. Don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves here,” Oates said. “Last night [New York’s Cam] Talbot played instead of [Henrik] Lundqvist after three days off. No one would have expected that. We didn’t. We know who the man is there, just that right now they want to win and they felt that that kid is a little hotter right now.”
That analogy isn’t perfect, though. Lundqvist has started no less than 75 percent of New York’s games dating from the 2006-07 season, is a three time all-star and Vezina Trophy winner. Holtby has yet to complete a full, 82-game regular season, and not too long ago he was the youngster making the most of an opportunity when injuries befell Washington’s goaltenders ahead of the 2012 playoffs.
Only once since he seized the reins that spring has Holtby sat out as a backup this often, and he’s trying to make this time productive.
“You take the adversity as a challenge. It has been different for me,” Holtby said. “Usually I can get right back in after a bad start and work my way out of it that way, but this situation is a little bit different. You deal with what you’re dealt and the only real way to get out of it is smart work and belief in yourself.”
Holtby is clearly eager to receive the bulk of the starts again. Meanwhile, Neuvirth, who has been a healthy scratch for six straight games, recently voiced his displeasure at his lack of playing time, saying he still wants to be a top netminder for an NHL team “if not here, maybe somewhere else.”
But right now they’re waiting for their turn again. With Grubauer continuing to roll along without any significant missteps, the Capitals can’t help but continue to lean on him.
“Just his composure really. He’s not a man of many words, but he always seems like he’s relaxed and calm and in his own state of mind,” defenseman Mike Green said. “He’s played outstanding, and you can’t give him enough credit.”
Capitals notes: Brooks Laich, who has missed 12 of the past 13 games with a groin injury, traveled with the team to Buffalo but is questionable to face the Sabres on Sunday. . . .
Michael Latta, who is on long-term injured reserve with a lower-body injury, did not make the trip.