Philipp Grubauer was wrapped in the District flag as the Capitals celebrated their Stanley Cup title last June 12 during a parade down Constitution Avenue. Within 10 days he was gone, traded to the Colorado Avalanche at the NHL Draft.
The move was hardly a surprise. Grubauer had a fine season as a backup to established starter Braden Holtby and even started the first two games of the playoffs. But as his contract grew each year, it was time to find a new home. Washington just couldn’t afford the luxury of a solid backup any more and Grubauer needed a place where he’d compete for the No. 1 job.
The Avalanche took Grubauer and veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik’s $5.5 million salary-cap hit for a second-round draft pick and simply bought out Orpik, who returned to Washington on a one-year deal.
Grubauer was the piece they wanted anyway, and he’s paying off for the Avalanche now in the playoffs. Call him the last man standing after the Capitals were eliminated in the first round and former coach Barry Trotz and his assistants with the New York Islanders were eliminated in the second round. The Carolina Hurricanes took out both teams.
Grubauer and Colorado play on tonight in Game 5 of their second-round series against the San Jose Sharks. You can watch the game at 10 p.m. on NBC Sports Network.
The young Avalanche, a wild-card entry into the postseason, have split the first four games with the Sharks. They are two wins away from a conference final berth and Grubauer had 32 saves in a 3-0 shutout win on Thursday.
It is a far cry from last spring when Grubauer stopped just 41 of 49 shots by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first two games of the Capitals’ first-round series. Holtby took over midway through Game 2 and immediately stabilized things, but it was too late in Game 2 and they trailed the series 2-0. Washington recovered to win in six games, but things were bleak at the time and it was a close-won thing.
Grubauer could take solace that the Capitals needed him last year. Holtby struggled through his worst season (.907 save percentage) and Grubauer started 28 games and played in 35. His .923 save percentage was the best of any goalie in the NHL with more than 30 appearances. That was vital as Holtby dealt with his struggles in February and an injury in late March. That gave Grubauer his opening, but he faltered.
Things weren’t all that different in Colorado to start, where Grubauer was pitted against Semyon Varlamov – another former Capitals goalie as they came one after another earlier this decade in a draft strategy that worked beautifully to produce a goalie pipeline. Varlamov begot Michal Neuvirth, who was followed by Holtby and Grubauer slid in, too, as a multi-year backup who grew his role each year.
Grubauer started 33 games for Colorado this season. Varlamov started 49. It was a quasi-backup role again. But Varlamov’s .909 save percentage was pedestrian. Grubauer was little better at .917, but he’s the one who again turned up his game late in the year.
On March 25, he was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week with 143 saves on 149 shots in a 3-0-1 week that propelled Colorado into a playoff spot it never relinquished. Grubauer had a .948 save percentage after returning from the NHL All-Star break as Varlamov predictably struggled with injuries and inconsistent play. That track record is why the Avalanche got Grubauer in the first place. Well, that and Varlamov’s pending free agency, age (31) and checkered injury history.
The Avalanche, the final seed, shocked the Western Conference’s top seed when it whipped the Calgary Flames in five games. Grubauer was excellent with a .939 save percentage stopping 143 of 153 shots. That put any sour memories from last year’s playoff bust with the Capitals behind him.
And while the numbers have dipped some against San Jose (.918 save percentage), Grubauer can build off Thursday’s performance. It’s a series now and the Avalanche have a legitimate shot.
That’s all Grubauer could have asked for. He was never realistically going to steal the job from Holtby and the Capitals were proven right to go back to their veteran. Holtby led them to the Cup and made one of the greatest saves in NHL history to do it in Game 2 against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final.
But Holtby’s season is over now. So is Trotz’s and other departed Capitals players from the title team like Jay Beagle (Vancouver) and Alex Chiasson (Edmonton).
A fourth-round pick in 2010, No. 112 overall by the Capitals, Grubauer is living his dream at age 27. That’s a long way from Rosenheim, Germany, where Grubauer grew up in a Bavarian town skiing and playing hockey far off the NHL radar in a country that only recently has embraced hockey after its success at the 2018 Winter Olympics. It’s also a long way from his days in the ECHL wearing flip flops to home games in warm-weather Charleston, SC.
But so far Grubauer has proven ready for it. The last Stanley Cup champion is alive and kicking in goal on a young, hungry team. Tonight Game 5 at the Shark Tank will be the biggest test of his career.
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