On Friday against the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer earned his fifth victory in his sixth start since being recalled from the American Hockey League on Nov. 30, making 38 saves and further fostering the team's confidence in him.
Grubauer's play over the past month has buoyed the Capitals, but his emergence has also created a logjam in their goaltending rotation, arguably the team's strongest position.
For the first time since Cristobal Huet joined Olie Kolzig and Brent Johnson at the trade deadline of the 2007-08 season, Washington is carrying three goaltenders on its active roster.
Braden Holtby, who is an unspectacular 1-2-1 with a 4.92 goals-against average and .863 save percentage in December, has assumed an unfamiliar position on the bench, having watched Grubauer start six of the Capitals' past nine games. Meanwhile, Michal Neuvirth has not started since Nov. 22, let alone dressed for an NHL game since injuring his right ankle prior to his last scheduled start on Nov. 29. which led to Grubauer's promotion in the first place.
It is a peculiar situation for Washington's coaching staff, and one that requires a delicate balancing act to navigate effectively.
"That's obviously the challenge is to keep everybody on track," said Kolzig, now serving as the team's goaltending coach. "It was unfortunate that Neuvy got hurt a month ago, and it's obviously what gave Grubi the opportunity. He's played really well. He's given us a little bit of a boost and I think right now we're riding that a little bit.
"That's what I tried to explain to the other two guys. Sometimes, there's opportunities when people get called up and they take advantage of it, but it's a long season and we're going to need all three of them at some point."
Coach Adam Oates has downplayed any hype surrounding Grubauer's recent string of success, pointing to the rookie's small sample at the NHL level this season (5-1-1, 2.18 GAA, 937 SV% in eight appearances), but that has not stopped him from riding the hot hand as the Capitals search for some semblance of consistency as the midway point of the season approaches.
“It’s just day to day for me,” Grubauer said. “I’m just looking forward to the game in Buffalo [on Sunday] and not further. I can’t change anything. The fact that we have three goalies I know not to worry about it. Just try to practice good, play good and put up some points and get the guys a win. That’s all that matters for me.”
In regards to Holtby, whenever the subject of his current standing is broached, Oates will insist that the 24-year-old remains Washington's starting goaltender, a right that he earned last season in starting 35 of the team's 48 games.
Oates and Kolzig have made a concerted effort to remind Holtby of that, comparing his situation to that of Rangers franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Despite missing three consecutive starts for the first time in over seven years as rookie Cam Talbot has played well enough to keep him on the bench, there is no question that Lundqvist is still the No. 1 in New York. (Whether that analogy is entirely applicable to Holtby considering Lundqvist's résumé is something else entirely.)
Even then, it has taken some getting used to for Holtby.
"It's different," he admitted. "You don't want to portray to your teammates that you're in a negative mood. You approach it like you want to work your way out of it, like you want to take the adversity as a challenge. It has been different for me. Usually, I can get right back in after a bad start and work my way out of it, but this situation's a bit different. You deal with what you're dealt and the only real way to get out of it is smart work and belief in yourself."
Kolzig is trying to accentuate the positive in Holtby's situation. In Kolzig's eyes, it has allowed Holtby to shore up some of the finer details of his game as he continues to adjust to the less aggressive style that he implemented upon his promotion in September. Kolzig also sees a benefit in Holtby having someone who can assist him in shouldering the load.
"Having Philipp play maybe actually takes a little bit of pressure off," Kolzig said. "You don't feel like you have to go in there and win every game. You've got a guy now that's capable of doing that."
As for Neuvirth, he has not offered much on the situation minus the familiar platitudes about practicing hard and taking things one day at a time, but frustration took hold last week when he said that he "[wants] to be a No. 1 goalie in this league, and if not here, maybe somewhere else."
Naturally, speculation regarding Neuvirth's future in Washington intensified, but Kolzig, not one to shy away from making incendiary remarks during his playing career, was pleased to hear Neuvirth say that.
"I liked his answer because you want guys to be a No. 1 guy," he said. "You don't want them just being complacent and happy they're in the NHL as a backup, so I like that attitude. I chalk that up to frustration. I said things in the paper that maybe I wish I hadn't said. We're all competitors and we all want to be in the net."
While "all three get along and respect each other" according to Kolzig, it has made for a crowded crease in Washington. Grubauer may be getting the bulk of the starts now, but all it takes is an untimely injury or a stretch of below-par performances for things to change.
"They need to be ready," Kolzig said. "It's just a juggling act. We've got to continue to juggle, but as long as we're winning, that's something that [we] have to deal with."
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