Photo credit: Patrick McDermott
For the first two months of the season, Braden Holtby was the Capitals’ rock. While the team struggled 5-on-5, Holtby’s excellent goaltending — despite facing some of the highest shot totals in the league — kept the team in games. The 24-year-old started every night from late October to early December, a span of 13 games. The workload, though, eventually caught up with him. After allowing three goals early against the Carolina Hurricanes in December, Holtby was pulled. Enter a new rock: Philipp Grubauer. After being called up in place of the injured Michal Neuvirth, Grubauer has played in five of seven games, starting three. He’s picked up three wins, posting a .937 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.06. He narrowly missed his first career shutout earlier this month.
“I soak it all in just being up here,” Grubauer told me. “I’ve been through almost every league: East Coast, AHL. It’s tough to get up here, but once you get up here you gotta make sure you stay. I’m just happy to be up here, and I work my butt off.”
This call-up has been Grubauer’s first extended audition in the NHL after seeing two games in an unimpressive opening stint with the team last year. For the 2010 fourth-round pick, his playing time this season has been as much of a surprise as it is to those watching. Grubauer says he has felt comfortable in big-league locker room since training camp, but he’s honored to finally have the trust of an NHL coaching staff.
“They’ve put me in a situation where I can learn and show them I can do the job too,” he said. “This is my goal, as full goalie not just up and down. I want to be up here from the start of the season so that’s what I show.”
Grubauer’s last three appearances have been particularly nerve-wracking for a young netminder: his games against the Lightning, Panthers, and Flyers have all gone to a shootout. Grubauer has stopped 11 of 18 attempts in the skills competition. The goalie, though, said he was most pleased with his performance on Sunday, making adjustments after his 10-round adventure against Florida, in which he stopped six. He stopped two of three shots against the Flyers in the shootout after making 24 saves on 28 shots in the hockey part of the game.
“We watched some video after the shootout, made some changes today,” said Grubauer. “I was happy; not with the goals I allowed, but the adjustments I made from Florida to tonight were really good.”
Though he allowed four goals Sunday, Grubi displayed his explosive lateral movement once again, making a couple of fantastic post-to-post saves. In many ways, his play brings back memories of former Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov and his rocket-fired legs.
Even after all his playing time this month — 262 minutes — Grubauer is destined for the AHL again. Sunday afternoon, the Caps took Neuvirth off injured reserve.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Grubauer said. “I think I’ve improved pretty much every game I’ve played. Less is more up here. Less is way more up here. It’s what I’ll try to work on down there in Hershey if I get sent down. I’m happy with the games I’ve played up here.”