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Korn prepares Grubauer for 'apprenticeship' with Caps


Korn prepares Grubauer for 'apprenticeship' with Caps

As a rule, Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn doesn’t care much for beating around the bush. So when you ask him the biggest challenge facing rookie netminder Philipp Grubauer as he navigates through his maiden NHL season, he cuts right to the chase.

“If I were him the hardest part would be looking at how long the No. 1 is contracted for,” Korn said. “That, to me, is a bigger obstacle than anything else we talk about.”

Korn is referring to the five-year, $30.5 million commitment the Capitals made to Braden Holtby over the summer. Prior to signing Holtby, the Caps agreed to terms with Grubauer on a two-year, NHL contract worth $1.5 million.

Holtby, who turned 26 last month, is as much a part of the Capitals’ future as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson. Grubauer, who will turn 24 next month and is scheduled to make his season debut tonight in Edmonton, aspires to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL – if not in Washington then somewhere else.

“We’re going to try – and I know he’s going to try - to make the most of it and understand what his role is at this particular moment,” Korn said.

“His job is to make himself so marketable that everybody in the league will want him, and then he becomes an asset to the Washington Capitals.”

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Korn brought up Edmonton Oilers starting goaltender Cam Talbot as an example. When Henrik Lundqvist was injured last season, Talbot stepped out of his shadows as a backup and went 21-9-4 for the Rangers. Before the June draft, the Rangers traded Talbot to the Oilers for the 57th, 79th and 184th picks of the 2015 NHL draft.

“That’s my job,” Korn said, “to help make him the best asset we can make him and if that time should come that time will come and then it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Korn mentioned four of his former students who started as backups and worked their way into established No. 1s -- Dominik Hasek, Tomas Vokoun, Chris Mason and Dan Ellis. He’s hoping Grubauer follows a similar path, even if it turns out to be with another NHL team.

Truth be told, Grubauer isn’t looking any further into the future than tonight. He has not played in a game since the Caps’ next-to-last preseason game on Oct. 2. Since then he has spent every practice and game day working alongside Korn and his variety of goaltending props and tools.  

“I don’t approach anything different,” said Grubauer, who went 27-17-2 with the Hershey Bears last season before winning one regular season game and one playoff game for the Caps.

“Mitch gave me a couple things to work on that I’m working on now. I think every year you can improve and you can work on things, whether it’s playing the puck or reading the play. Obviously, it’s going to be a little bit tougher this year getting into a groove because maybe I’m not going to play as much as I used to in the past. But if I play I have to make sure I don’t have that rust on me and I play to my capabilities.”

Since the Capitals made him their fourth-round pick (112thoverall) in 2010, Grubauer has never played in fewer than 42 games in a single season. Since last playing on Oct. 2 he has practiced in front of screen boards, carried medicine balls and stopped pucks in a variety of sizes and colors.

“Every time I go out there before practice I get better,” Grubauer said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Holts or the guys shooting or if it’s me. If you work hard you’re going to get better eventually. (Korn) brings so much variety into the practice, whether it’s the screen board, white pucks, medicine ball -- everything has a place and makes sense because it helps you improve.”

Grubauer said a few points of emphasis have been playing tighter in his crease, handling the puck more cleanly, tracking the puck through traffic and reading and anticipating where the puck is going.

“If doesn’t matter to Mitch if you’re 6-foot-5 or 5-11, he doesn’t tell you you have to play deep or play far out. You’re the goalie and he makes you prove who you can be. It’s been great working with him so far and we’re all moving in the right direction.”

Someday, that direction could be in another NHL city and Korn says he and Grubauer are OK with that.

“He gets it,” Korn said. “He understands this is an apprenticeship and that’s what it is.”

MORE CAPITALS: Ovechkin turns 'muffin' into first game-winner

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The Caps showed flashes of their mentality with shorthanded win in Colorado

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The Caps showed flashes of their mentality with shorthanded win in Colorado

On November 16, 2017, the Washington Capitals were handed a brutal 6-2 loss in Denver at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. It was the second blowout loss the team had suffered in as many games and dropped the Caps’ record to 10-9-1. That moment would be the low point of the season.

A year to the day, the Caps returned to Denver. They were given every reason to quit Friday and repeat last year’s disastrous result and yet, the Caps rallied for a 3-2 overtime win to improve their record to 9-7-3.

Coming off a loss Wednesday in Winnipeg, Washington found out earlier on Friday that the team would be without both T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov who had both suffered injuries against the Jets. In net, Braden Holtby was out as well meaning the Caps would have to turn to backup goalie Pheonix Copley for his third start in as many games. Backing him up would be Ilya Samsonov, a highly touted prospect but a player without a single minute of NHL experience.

And, just in case that all did not seem daunting enough, the Caps also spotted the Avalanche a 1-0 lead just 68 seconds into the game.

One year ago, the Caps gave up the first goal of that game just 17 seconds in. When Colorado scored early again, it felt like Friday’s game was going to end up being just like that blowout loss from a year ago.

But it didn’t.

“We were shorthanded, everyone stepped up,” Tom Wilson said. “We talked about guys stepping up before the game and we got it done.”

The Capitals battled back and took control of the game in the first and second periods, tallying two goals to take a 2-1 lead. A late goal by Colorado would tie the game, but Todd Reirden reminded his players of what happened in Montreal – a game in which the Caps gave up three goals in the final four minutes of the game to lose 6-4 – and challenged them not to let that happen again. The team responded.

With all the momentum on the side of the Avalanche, Devante Smith-Pelly drew a holding penalty with less than two minutes remaining and Nicklas Backstrom would score on the resulting power play in overtime.

“When you have a lot of guys hurt, it was nice to see that we really got together, played a good defensive game, everyone was on the same page and blocking shots and doing all the little things right,” Backstrom said.

The game was reminiscent of the Game 6 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs last season. With one win separating them from advancing to the conference final, Washington had to somehow find a way to beat their biggest rival in Pittsburgh and they had to do it with no Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky or Tom Wilson. When their backs were against the wall, the Caps responded and managed to defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions 2-1 in overtime.

“It was important for guys to step up in different situations with obviously very key guys out, but we did it in the playoffs,” Smith-Pelly said. “We had key guys out at times. I guess this group is used to guys coming in and out and stepping up.”

The Caps returned most of their Stanley Cup winning roster for the 2018-19 season and fans have been waiting for this year’s team to start playing like last year’s again. A record of 8-7-3 heading into Friday’s game was hardly what people expected from this team early on.

But the win in Colorado was one of the team’s most impressive wins of the season, and perhaps the closest Washington has come since the 7-0 win in the opener to looking like that championship squad. Not because they looked dominant – they didn’t – but because when their backs were against the wall, you saw what this team was really made of mentally. Every time they were challenged in the playoffs – whether it was going down 2-0 to Columbus, playing the unbeatable Penguins, facing elimination against Tampa Bay or facing the red-hot Vegas Golden Knights – the Caps responded.

On Friday, Washington was challenged and again, and the Caps responded.

Last year’s game in Colorado proved to be a turning point. The team was at a cross-roads. They could check out and watch the inevitable coaching and roster shakeup happen, or they could rally to save the season. The Caps made a choice and the rest is history.

Maybe Friday’s game will mean nothing in the greater context of the 82-game season, or maybe this game will again prove to be a turning point. Maybe in the spring we will again circle Nov. 16 and remember it as the game in which the defending champs put the rest of the league on notice that they’re still here, they’re still the champs and they’re not going down without a fight.

“Every time we have injuries, it’s going to happen and it’s going to get other guys to get that opportunity,” Backstrom said. "I thought we played pretty good today, we didn’t give them a whole lot. That was a nice win, we needed that.”

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How Todd Reirden saved the game in Colorado by calling a coach’s challenge he knew he would lose

How Todd Reirden saved the game in Colorado by calling a coach’s challenge he knew he would lose

With the Caps clinging to a 2-1 lead in the third period against the Colorado Avalanche Friday, disaster struck as Colorado forward Colin Wilson hit a puck out of midair past goalie Pheonix Copley to tie the game.

But Todd Reirden was going to make sure this game did not spiral out of control.

Reirden made what at the time seemed like a curious decision to challenge the goal for goalie interference. Avalanche forward Matt Calvert was right in Copley’s face, but there was, at best, minimal contact and certainly nothing that would suggest it hindered Copley’s ability to make a save. Sure, you never know what the refs will find when you watch in slow motion, but the challenge had almost no shot.

It was a curious call and a curious reaction when the call stood as a good goal. Reirden seemed legitimately angry, more so than you usually see from him.

But it was all calculated.

“Just thought there was some contact there, but to be 100-percent truthful on that, our team needed a timeout at that point so I had to make sure I was selling it properly,” Reirden said after the game.

Reirden knew the challenge was not going to be successful, but he wanted the opportunity to give the team an important reminder after they gave up the game-tying goal.

“It was a situation where a few weeks ago we had the lead and let it go against Montreal and it was something that we discussed with our team. I thought it was worth a try – I didn’t think it was very high percentage it was going to be reversed – and it gave me an opportunity to talk to our players about the fact that we’ve been in this situation before. Have we learned and are we going grow from that? Sure enough, we did and we end up stringing together a couple decent shifts of no panic and doing the right thing and we draw the penalty and are able to convert on the power play.”

On Nov. 1, the Caps held a 4-3 lead over the Montreal Canadiens with less than five minutes remaining in the game. The game spiraled out of control, however, when Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored a game-tying goal. Washington allowed three goals in the final 3:04 of the game to turn a road win into a two-goal loss.

Reirden was determined that was not going to happen again on Friday so he challenged a goal and reminded his team of what happened in Montreal during the review. The Caps responded by drawing a late penalty and winning 3-2 in overtime in a game in which they were without Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Braden Holtby.

“That’s important for me, early in the season, to have those growth moments as a team,” Reirden said. “That was actually what was going on behind the scenes there so that set us up for success.”|

But wait, why not just call a time out?

Because the Caps had nothing to lose. You still get the timeout and a chance, no matter how miniscule, of taking a goal off the board. And if you lose the challenge, all you lose is the timeout you would have used anyway.

Worth a shot, right?