When the NHL season passes the All-Star break, the next big day in the hockey calendar is the trade deadline. As the season drags into January and February, everything begins to be seen through the prism of deadline day. So when Capitals goalie Philipp Grubauer gave up four goals against the Florida Panthers on Feb. 2, people began to question whether goaltending depth was something the Caps needed to address through a trade before the deadline.
Grubauer put those fears to rest on Tuesday night with his performance against the Los Angeles Kings.
The Capitals' backup blocked 39 out of 40 shots, ceding only one goal to one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
"He made some great saves," head coach Barry Trotz said. "He looked very very confident and he was seeing things in slow motion tonight."
There have been times this season when it was clear that the Caps were only in a game because Braden Holtby was keeping them in it. This game felt similar in the second period when the Kings began to take control. Already up 1-0, they fired 19 shots on Grubauer in the second, but the Rosenheim, Germany native turned aside each and every one, allowing the Caps to stay within striking distance.
At the end of the period, instead of the Kings taking a dominating lead into the locker room, the score was tied at one and Los Angeles had nothing to show for their efforts.
"Guys in front of me did a really good job letting me see the pucks," Grubauer said. "They have a couple of tall guys on their team which makes it really hard for me to find lanes and look around. They did a really good job boxing out and keeping shots to the outside."
While the hockey media speculated over Grubauer's future following the loss to Florida, Trotz said he never lost faith in his backup.
"Gruby's been good all year. Last outing probably wasn't a normal Gruby one. I don't have any doubts in what he can do. That's why he got this game. I mean, he was going to get a Dallas or L.A. We had decided before."
That faith was evident even last season. In the first round of the playoffs the Caps were down 1-0 in the series against the New York Islanders when Holtby fell ill and could not play in a critical Game 2. Rather than turn to backup Justin Peters, Trotz instead called Grubauer up from AHL Hershey who rewarded Trotz's faith with the win.
This season, Grubauer has had to adjust from being the top guy in Hershey, playing in multiple games every week, to being a backup with relatively few opportunities.
"It was a transition for me this year obviously getting back-to-back games and maybe not seeing as many pucks," Grubauer said.
He may not be as good as Holtby, and showed that with some rebound control issues early in the game, but few goaltenders are. Still, despite the criticism after the Florida game, Grubauer has acquitted himself well. For the season, he has a 6-4-1 record with a 2.13 goals against average and .925 save percentage.
So do the Caps need a dependable backup goaltender? Absolutely. And they have one in Grubauer.
Said Trotz, "We never have any doubts that he's a good goaltender and tonight I thought he was rock-solid."
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