The Washington Capitals reassigned goaltender Philipp Grubauer to the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League on Monday morning, dissipating the logjam that his emergence had created.
"He came up and played really well, gave us a little life and won some games," coach Adam Oates said. "Obviously made for a difficult situation with three goalies and we just lost a few in a row. It makes sense to send him back down and go to two. We lost that spark in a sense. He showed that he can be an NHL goalie. Go back down and retool your game. Keep working on it."
Washington recalled the 22-year-old on Nov. 30 to replace Michal Neuvirth, who suffered an ankle injury prior to his scheduled start against the Montreal Canadiens the evening before. On Dec. 8, Grubauer made his first start of the season against the New York Rangers, earning his first career NHL victory and assuming the bulk of the starts from that point on.
Grubauer, who earned a 6-4-5 record with a 2.38 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in 16 appearances, had started 14 of the Capitals' past 20 games, including the last two against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday and the Rangers on Sunday.
He, however, did not finish either of those games; he allowed six goals on a combined 22 shots over a 39:30 span, giving way to Braden Holtby in a 5-1 loss to the Blue Jackets and a 4-1 loss to the Rangers, the Capitals' fourth and fifth straight losses, respectively.
Following both defeats, Oates was quick not to place the blame on Grubauer's performance. In explaining his reasoning behind the decision to reassign Grubauer, Oates cited the team's overall struggles and the fact that juggling three goaltenders was an untenable situation.
"It’s a little dysfunctional for everybody, but it’s a situation that, unfortunately, just happened," Oates said. "It happens with an injury and then one guy comes in and he plays and he kind of plays good, gets the ball for a little bit. The other guy gets healthy again, but we had a guy playing good. They were all pros about it, but it was a little dysfunctional."
As for Holtby and Neuvirth, there was a certain sense of relief. Reps in practice had become less abundant, and as Grubauer carried the load, both were forced to watch, Holtby from the bench and Neuvirth from the press box.
Holtby has only made two starts since Dec. 21, and Neuvirth's agent made it clear last month that he wanted his client to find a fresh start elsewhere after being deemed a healthy scratch through most of Grubauer's tenure. (Neuvirth said on Monday that he "is focusing on playing for this team.")
"Well obviously it was frustrating," said Holtby, who admitted that he had trouble concentrating during practice as he reacclimated to a full workload. "It was a very frustrating time, but you get through it. You just try and work your way through it. You obviously never want to see a teammate who's been contributing at the level that Philipp has sent down, but from a personal standpoint, it's just nice to get a full practice back, to get the ability to work, get the winded feeling in practice again, which is nice. I missed that."
Said Neuvirth, "Grubi was playing good, and we had a tough couple of games. He's going to have a chance to play every game in Hershey. I think it's good for me and Holts to get a full practice and I'm pretty excited."
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