If you were going to make a list of the players the Caps could not afford to lose this season, it would be pretty short. They've shown they can win even without star players like Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Orpik and John Carlson. There are two players the team can't afford to lose, however: Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin. In that order.
Holtby has unquestioningly been the team's MVP this season, but in the second period of Sunday's game against the New York Rangers, the team suddenly found themselves without their top netminder.
"He just said that he was having a little trouble getting focused," Trotz said. "He didn't get hit or anything so we just think it's a little hydration."
It's a problem Holtby has had before as he was pulled from practice in December. The good news is that Trotz did not believe it would keep Holtby out of the lineup. The bad news on Sunday was that the Caps still had a game to play. So for the second time in as many nights, the team turned to backup Philipp Grubauer. Unlike in Saturday's loss to Buffalo, however, when Grubauer entered with the Caps down 3-0, this time he came in protecting a one-goal lead.
As he said after the game, the situation from his point of view was no different. All he was thinking about was "stop the puck." His teammates, however, recognized the different challenge he faced against New York.
"I can't even imagine what it's like to have to do that," Taylor Chorney said. "Just sitting on the bench then all of a sudden you get thrown into a game like that when you're playing a top team like the Rangers. It's unbelievable."
Grubauer did not disappoint. The young netminder turned aside all 11 shots he faced, backstopping the Caps to the 5-2 win.
You can excuse the fans for worrying about how the Caps would respond without Holtby, but for the Caps, there was no panic at all.
"We see him everyday," Justin Williams said of Grubauer. "We see the talent that he has and the competitiveness that he has. To come in halfway through a game that you don't think you're playing in back-to-back days shows that he's ready, mentally ready."
That's a very different story compared to last season when the Caps were relying on Justin Peters as their No. 2.
Peters struggled in relief, sputtering to a 3-6-1 record and .881 save percentage. As a result, the coaches seemed to lose faith in him resulting in Holtby playing in 73 games in the regular season. When he fell ill in the playoffs, Grubauer was recalled from the AHL and given the start over Peters. Now in his first full season in the NHL, Grubauer has registered a .925 save percentage and 2.12 GAA.
Yeah, I'd say those are numbers you can get behind.
The transition from starting goaltender to backup is not an easy transition to make, especially when a goalie comes from the AHL where teams play in multiple back-to-back games. To go from playing constantly to sitting on the bench can be hard to do. Grubauer seems to have handled that transition well. Part of that is how he manages to stay focused during the game just in case he is unexpectedly called upon to play.
"I follow the puck a little bit more," Grubauer said. "I don't look around too much in the crowd, just concentrate on the puck and try to read plays and that's it."
It's a formula that seems to be working.
Said Chorney, "He came in, made some huge stops and was a big part of the win."
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