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How Vegas may have saved the Capitals' season by passing on Philipp Grubauer

How Vegas may have saved the Capitals' season by passing on Philipp Grubauer

Heading into the playoffs, one advantage the Capitals have is two starting-caliber goalies on the roster in Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer.

Considering how many teams struggle to find just one, having two is a luxury not seen too often in today’s NHL.

“I think we're in a good situation here,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said Friday in a sitdown with the media. “Holtby's been one of the top goalies in the league over the last four years, a Vezina winner. And Grubauer's solidifying himself. Since November, he's been one of the best goalies in the league. I think we're in a good spot here where we have two goalies that are playing well and the coaching staff has options to play. I don't think they can go wrong choosing either way.”

As good as Grubauer has been, few would have predicted he would have the type of impact he has had this season.

Guess it’s a good thing he’s still in Washington since for a while it did not look like he would be.

Let’s turn the clocks back to the offseason. With the Vegas Golden Knights preparing for its first season in the league, the NHL held an expansion draft. Teams were given a limited number of players they could protect, but every team was guaranteed to lose one player.

With only one protected slot allotted for goaltenders, the Capitals of course protected Holtby, the 27-year-old Vezina Trophy winner who had just completed his third consecutive 40-win season. That left Grubauer exposed.

In the 2016-17 season, Grubauer registered a 2.04 GAA and .926 save percentage in 24 games played. At 25 years old, clearly this was a goalie with starting potential.

Typically, there are few assets in the NHL that carry as much value as a starting goalie. Grubauer looked like the perfect backup to a veteran like Marc-Andre Fleury who could pick up the torch when Fleury began to decline or a major asset Vegas could potentially flip to another goalie-desperate team in a trade.

But Vegas didn’t bite. Instead, the Golden Knights took defenseman Nate Schmidt.

MacLellan attempted to work out a trade with McPhee to keep Schmidt in Washington, but with teams like Columbus throwing a first and a second-round draft pick and David Clarkson in a package just so Vegas would select William Karlsson (who, by the way, went on to lead the Golden Knights in goals with 43), the asking price was too high and MacLellan had to walk away.

At the time, it seemed like a devastating blow. The Caps had only three top-four defensemen without Schmidt, but they already had a goalie. One possible solution was to find a trade partner and trade Grubauer for defensive help, but that did not happen either. No one apparently saw the same potential in Grubauer that the Caps did.

“I think we have had Grubauer valued more than the league has had,” MacLellan said. “So that's been kind of an issue, where we feel he was going to be a good No. 1 goalie. And the rest of the league, in general, say that he hasn't had time to prove it.”

So while teams went out and signed goalies like Steve Mason and Brian Elliott in free agency and Vegas took its new toys including Schmidt and began assembling a roster, the Capitals were caught with a hole on defense and a second goalie they couldn’t move.

History, however, has been kind to Washington.

Grubauer played a vital role for the Capitals this season playing in 35 games with a .923 save percentage and 2.35 GAA. When Holtby suffered a late-season swoon in February and March, Grubauer took over so Holtby could re-set. He started 10 of the team’s last 16 games and won seven of them. His play of late has been spectacular and on Tuesday he was named the starter for Game 1 heading into the playoffs.

Granted, there is a case to be made saying that if the Caps had kept Nate Schmidt, the defense would have been better and perhaps Holtby would not have struggled as a result. But that would have likely meant promoting Pheonix Copley as the team's backup. Copley, however, struggled immensely at the start of this season in Hershey. Had the Caps elected to promote him, trust in Copley would have eroded, potentially leading the team to overworking Holtby in much the same way he was in the 2014-15 season, when he played in 73 games with Justin Peters as the backup.

The point is, we can't say definitively if the Caps would have been better off with Schmidt instead of Grubauer.

What we can say, however, is that even with the loss of Schmidt, the expansion draft seems to have worked out pretty darn well for Washington.

“It would have been tough to call that one,” MacLellan said. “We didn't want to lose Grubauer either in the expansion draft because we valued him highly. Obviously, it's worked out for us because we've had to use him for the season. We'll see what happens here going forward.”

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How to watch the IIHF World Championship Finals: Date, Time, TV Channel, Lineups

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How to watch the IIHF World Championship Finals: Date, Time, TV Channel, Lineups

The 2019 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship is coming to a close this Memorial Day weekend.

After two weeks, the sixteen team field has been narrowed down to four with the world championship now on the line in Slovakia. 

The two group winners, Canada, the top-ranked team in the world and 26-time IIHF Champions, and Russia, who rolled through the group stage with a 7-0 record and a +29 goal differential, are the favorites. Russia overwhelmingly has played like the best team in Slovakia, outscoring its opponents 40-10 behind Nikita Kucherov's 16 points in eight games.

The Russian/ Soviet Union team is the only team with more titles than the Canadians with 27 (five as Russia, 22 as the Soviet Union). 

Washington Capital Alex Ovechkin is playing for Team Russia. In eight games he's scored two goals and recorded an assist. 

Canada will face off against the Czech Republic, whose only loss came against the Russians in group play, with a spot to the Finals on the line. Russia will play Finland for the last spot in the gold medal match.

Three of the four teams remaining (Russia, Canda, and the Czech Republic) are the winningest teams in the IIHF's history. The four semifinalists have combined to win 67 of the 82 IIHF World Championships.

When is the 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals?

The 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals will take place at 8:15 p.m. local time (2:15 p.m. ET) on Sunday, May 26. The bronze medal match will precede the gold medal match at 3:45 p.m. local time (9:15 a.m. ET). 

2019 IIHF World Championship Schedule:

There are only four matches left in the 2019 IIHF World Championship. The two semifinals, the bronze medal match, and the gold medal match.

No. 3 Russia vs. No. 5 Finland, 9:15 a.m. ET, May 25
No. 1 Canada vs. No. 6 Czech Republic, 1:15 p.m. ET, May 25

Loser of Semifinal No. 1 vs. Loser of Semifinal No. 2, 9:45 a.m. ET, May 26

Winner of Semifinal No. 1 vs. Winner of Semifinal No. 2, 2:15 p.m. ET, May 26

How to watch or stream the 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals:

All games at the IIHF World Championships will be broadcast on NHL Network.

Who is playing in the 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals?

The 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals will be played between the winner of Russia (8-0-0)/ Finland (7-0-1) and Canada (7-1-0)/ Czech Republic (7-0-1).

Lineups for the 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals:

Lineups for the 2019 IIHF Championship Finals will be announced on the morning of May 26. 

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The Blues turnaround from last place to the playoffs began with a blowout win over the Caps

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The Blues turnaround from last place to the playoffs began with a blowout win over the Caps

When the St. Louis Blues woke up on Jan. 3, they were in dead last in the NHL. A 15-18-4 record gave them 34 points, less than teams like the Los Angeles Kings and the Ottawa Senators who would go on to finish the season as the two worst teams. Yes, St. Louis had played in only 37 games to that point, the fewest in the league, but finding a way to climb back into the playoff hunt seemed daunting and unlikely.

Now the Blues are the Western Conference champions and stand just four wins away from the Stanley Cup.

The Blues have been one of the best stories of the NHL season climbing from last place to the Stanley Cup Final. When looking back at St. Louis’ season, there are several moments one can point to as key moments in the turnaround. Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as head coach on Nov. 20 and goalie Jordan Binnington got his first start with the Blues on Jan. 7 and never gave back the crease.

But the turnaround really started on Jan. 3. On that morning, the Blues were in last place. That would be the last day they would find themselves there.

And it all started with a 5-2 win against the Washington Capitals.

On Jan. 3, St. Louis and Washington looked like two teams headed in opposite directions. While the Blues were in last place, the Caps were rolling with a 24-11-3 record, first in the Metropolitan Division. Washington came into St. Louis on a five-game road winning streak. As if that wasn’t enough, the Blues were also without sniper Vladimir Tarasenko.

And yet, what looked like an easy win for the Caps turned into anything but. Robert Thomas scored a deflection just four minutes into the game. Washington managed to take a 2-1 lead early in the second, but St. Louis rattled off four straight goals for the 5-2 win. With Washington down only 3-2 heading into the third period, the Blues but on a possession clinic outshooting Washington 14-2 in the final frame.

"We stayed aggressive," Alex Pietrangelo told reporters. "When we're playing in the O zone, the best way to play defense is to play in their end. We kept the puck, we moved the puck, we worked. Forwards were great tonight, protecting the center of the ice. It kind of took their playmakers out of the game."

The Caps’ first shot came 13 minutes into the third. By then, the Blues already had 12 shots and two goals.

Over the course of an 82-game season, teams will lose games against teams they shouldn’t. This felt different. Watching this game, you did not come away thinking the Caps played down to an inferior team. The Blues dominated that game and the Caps knew it.

“They were skating, competing harder, won races, more determined than we were,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “If we’re being honest about it, we didn’t have a very good game, and they played a pretty darn good game.”
More importantly, St. Louis realized it as well. They knew following the game that this was a win and a performance they could build on.

“I think we out-chanced them, so we're building here at even strength,” Pietrangelo said. “It's just a matter of keeping it at even strength and scoring goals. Tonight the goals weren't necessarily pretty but we created a lot of chances."
That night proved to be the first night of the turnaround. From Jan. 3 on, no team in the NHL earned more points than St. Louis’ 65, not even the Tampa Bay Lightning who won the Presidents’ Trophy with an incredible 128 points.

St. Louis was not expected to be bad this season. The team made a number of offseason moves to bolster the roster and many thought they could be real contenders, but they sure did not play like it through the first half of the season. It took a big win over the defending Stanley Cup champs to show them and everyone else just how good they really were. From that point on, they never looked back.