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What is a back-up goalie’s job during a game?

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USA TODAY

What is a back-up goalie’s job during a game?

At the end of every bench in the NHL is a goalie sitting in full pads and a hat. What is his job during the game?

Friday’s game between the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers was one of the rare games that featured four goalies. Braden Holtby and James Reimer started, but both were ultimately pulled in what was a high-scoring affair. In stepped Pheonix Copley and Michael Hutchinson.

And yet, despite being little more than an afterthought in the team’s preparation for the game, both Copley (one goal allowed on 19 shots, .947 save percentage) and Hutchinson (one goal allowed on 11 shots, .909 save percentage) stepped in and out-performed the starters giving both of their respective teams a chance to win the game.

“It's easier in some aspects,” Holtby said of coming into a game off the bench, something he has done at various points of his career despite being the primary starter for Washington. “I think that's why you see a lot of guys go in and have success right away and have good games because you don't have that day or two days to be getting rid of your thoughts and that kind of thing.”

At the end of every bench in the NHL is a goalie sitting in full pads and a hat. Every team dresses two goalies on the roster for a game. One starts and one sits on the bench as the backup in case he is needed because of injury or because a coach chooses to make a goalie switch. That backup is tasked with being ready at all times to step into the game knowing full well that, if all goes according to plan, he will not get to play at all.

Holtby and Reimer had prepared for Friday’s game knowing they were going to start. Both players took warmups in order to prepare them to play a full game while Copley and Hutchinson had little reason to think they would see any action at all.

By the end of the second period, however, both Holtby and Reimer had been replaced. Copley at least had an intermission to prepare as he came on at the start of the second period while Hutchinson had to step in midway through the second period.

“I guess it can be a little challenging,” Copley said, “But I feel like as long as you’re kind of paying attention to the game and your mind's kind of in that hockey mindset then if something happens, I'll be ready to go.”

Professional athletes are creatures of habit. To have to step into a game unexpectedly with little to no warning or preparation and be expected to perform at the highest level is an incredibly tough mental challenge.

And yet, in many ways, it can be easier than starting.

“The whole thing about mental preparation is so that you go out there not thinking about anything, not worrying about any of that,” Holtby said. “When you're forced in with a matter of 30 seconds, there's no time to think about anything. You just go in and play.”

For goalies, not starting does not mean having the night off. Both coaches and teammates alike can lean upon a backup netminder as an extra set of eyes.

“Sometimes they'll ask a question like did it look like I had room there?” Copley said. “Was it a shot or missed? Did you see what happened on this play? So I just try to be there and watch.”

Some coaches even give goalies assignments in game, though that practice seems to be on the decline.

“I know [Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock] makes them look at faceoffs or something,” Holtby said. “It's pretty archaic. There's guys that do that now that are better than the backup goalie at looking at things.”

In truth, there is no defined in-game requirements for most goalies in the NHL when they sit as backups and that is true of the Caps’ tandem. That makes the job of a backup a very simple one.

“I just try and be ready if I have to go in,” Copley said. “Make sure I'm physically and mentally ready and be a good teammate.”

Holtby put it even more succinctly as he said, “Don't do anything stupid.”

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3 things to watch in Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

3 things to watch in Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

The Capitals return to action Saturday looking to erase the memory of Thursday’s blowout loss. The task will not be any easier, however, as the Caps will be hosting the red-hot Toronto Maple Leafs (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington).

Here are three things to watch.

Auston Matthews

Among the league’s young stars, Connor McDavid is generally more highly regarded as arguably the best player in the NHL. Matthews, however, is not far behind.

In five games this season, Matthews already has found the back of the net nine times. That is more than eight different teams and tied with another three. He has been scoring seemingly at will this season thus far and will present a major challenge to the Capitals’ defense.

Offensive firepower

Toronto’s offense is just ridiculous.

In addition to Matthews, the Maple Leafs also have budding star Mitch Marner and added John Tavares in the offseason. Tavares is a player that Washington has grown very familiar with over the years when he was with the New York Islanders. Now, instead of just being a big fish in a small pond, Tavares was added to the roster of the up-and-coming Leafs and the offense is humming at an absurd pace.

The Maple Leafs are averaging 5.00 goals per game thus far in the young season while the Caps sit just behind them at 4.50 goals per game.

The good news for Washington is that they have a strong top four on defense and a proven defense that helped lead them to the Cup last season. The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, are trying really hard to convince themselves that Morgan Rielly is a No. 1 defenseman.

There should be plenty of scoring to go around in this one.

Bounce back game

The Capitals were trounced on Thursday 6-0. Saturday’s game offers a glimpse at just how this team will respond.

How will first year head coach Todd Reirden approach this game? How will the defending Stanley Cup champions respond to getting kicked in the teeth? How will Washington respond to a team looking to establish itself as a true Cup contender?

After the home opener, a game in Pittsburgh and a Stanley Cup rematch against Vegas, it is perhaps understandable why Washington struggled to get up for New Jersey. That should not be the case Saturday in a big-time matchup against Toronto.

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Capitals Prospect report: Despite a rumored return to Sweden, Jonsson-Fjallby remains in Hershey

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Capitals Prospect report: Despite a rumored return to Sweden, Jonsson-Fjallby remains in Hershey

It’s a brand new season in Hershey. The Bears had a rough 2017-18 campaign, finishing last in the Atlantic Division and missing the playoffs. This season, the Bears look like a completely new team with the addition of several Caps prospects including Swedish forward Axel Jonsson-Fjallby.

The rumor mill this week had some wondering if Jonsson-Fjallby was going to take his golden locks back home to Sweden after only two games in the AHL. Rumors spread Monday and Tuesday saying he was going to return to his SHL team Djurgardens IF, but those rumors are untrue.

I reached out to Hershey and was told that Jonsson-Fjallby remains in Hershey and there are no plans for him to return to Sweden at this time.

Hershey also tweeted out this update to prove Jonsson-Fjallby was still with the team.

You do not know what a player’s specific situation is when it comes to family or how he is adjusting to living in a new country, but from a pure hockey perspective, Jonsson-Fjallby would be wise to stay in Hershey. There he can adjust to the North American game and better position himself to compete for a spot on the Caps in the coming years.

There could even be an outside chance of a call-up this year if the need arises.

Jonsson-Fjallby’s best asset is his speed. If there’s a situation in which the Caps need to plug a player in its fourth line for a game or two, Jonsson-Fjallby could be a good choice because of that speed. Obviously, Shane Gersich or Riley Barber would probably look like better candidates for longer-term call-ups, but it does not seem out of the realm of possibility that Jonsson-Fjallby could be considered if the Caps suffer a few injuries among the team’s forwards.

That obviously won’t happen if he goes back to Sweden.

The fact is, the North American game can be hard to adjust to. Not many players can play in Europe and then step directly into the NHL and be effective. Just ask Sergei Shumakov.

A move back to Sweden for Jonsson-Fjallby would be a step in the wrong direction for his NHL career. Luckily for him, there appears to be no truth to the rumors that he was planning on leaving.

Other Prospect Notes:

·        Hershey has elected to start the season without naming a captain. Instead, the team will go with six alternate captains. Riley Barber, Liam O’Brien and Aaron Ness will wear the A for home games while Tyler Lewington, Michael Sgarbossa and Colby Williams will get the A for away games.

·        Ilya Samsonov started in the Bears’ opening game on Saturday in what was his first ever professional start in North America. Hershey lost the game 3-2 to Syracuse with Samsonov making 28 saves on 31 shots.

·        The seasons for junior hockey leagues are in full swing. In the WHL, Eric Florchuk is off to a hot start with three goals and eight points in eight games for Saskatoon. He was named the WHL’s third star for Oct. 3. Teammate Kristian Roykas-Marthinsen has two goals and three points. Riley Sutter has two goals and six points in six games for Everett. Alex Alexeyev has been red hot to start with three goals and nine points in seven games for Red Deer. In the OHL, Kody Clark has three goals and four points in nine games for Ottawa.

·        Ryan Kennedy named defenseman Benton Maass No. 15 in The Hockey News’ top 75 players to watch in NCAA. Writes Kennedy, “The sophomore offensive defenseman got off to a hot start as a frosh; can the Washington Capitals pick hit another level this year?” Maass scored four goals and 17 points in his freshman season at the University of New Hampshire.

·        Forward Steven Spinner has been named an alternate captain for his senior season at Nebraska-Omaha.

·        The Capitals chose not to sign prospect defenseman Dmitri Zaitsev (whose first name I have seen spelled in four different ways since he was drafted) to an entry-level contract in the offseason, thus forfeiting his rights. Zaitsev was drafted in the seventh round of the 2016 NHL Draft by the Capitals and spent the last two seasons playing for Moose Jaw of the WHL. Since not getting signed by the Capitals, he returned to his native Russia and has split time between the KHL and MHL. 

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