When the Washington Capitals reconvened for practice in Arlington on Monday morning, there were three healthy and capable goaltenders on the ice.
Regular starter Braden Holtby, newly healthy Michal Neuvirth and promising prospect Philipp Grubauer all rotated through drills, making for a crowded crease at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
All three will travel to Philadelphia as the Capitals face the Flyers on Tuesday two nights removed from Washington's come-from-behind 5-4 shootout victory on Sunday at Verizon Center. Having to decide between three competent goaltenders is certainly a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless that Washington's coaching staff will have to solve.
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"We've just got to figure it out," Coach Adam Oates said. "Don't have an answer for you right now.
"Neuvy was hurt for a couple weeks, and by being hurt, missed a couple chances to play. Grubi came up and played well enough to force some tough decisions. We're in that boat. We have to figure it out. ... It's not an ideal situation, but it's the situation we're in right now."
The Capitals recalled Grubauer from the American Hockey League on Nov. 30 after Neuvirth injured his right ankle stepping on a puck as he made his way onto the ice for pregame warmups before his scheduled start against the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 29.
Since then, Grubauer has appeared in five of Washington's seven games, starting three of the past four. (He came on in relief of Holtby in the one game he did not start, playing 52:47 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 10.) The 22-year-old rookie has been impressive, earning a 3-0-1 record with a 2.06 goals against average and .937 save percentage.
"It's a tough call," Oates said. "It's something [general manager] George [McPhee], [goaltending coach] Olie [Kolzig] and I talk about a lot because [Grubauer's] done great, but it's been such a short window, let's put it in perspective. It's given Holts a chance to rest a little and be ready for this week and Neuvy a chance to heal. He really helped us out and by doing that he showed some really good things in this league."
For Holtby, this is the longest stretch that he has sat on the bench since January, when he watched Neuvirth make five consecutive starts during the first month of the lockout-shortened season. Oates reaffirmed Holtby's status as "our No.1 guy" on Monday, but that has not made it any easier for Holtby to be a spectator.
“It’s never easy not playing," said Holtby, who has been pulled in two of his last three starts. "Everyone would say that. You understand the reasoning behind it from the coach, but you don’t ever want to expect that over the season. You’d like to play every game and never give a coach the reason to take you out, but unfortunately in this situation it has been [that way]. I’m just trying to use it to my advantage to work harder in practice on a few things and be ready when I’m called upon.”
Meanwhile, Neuvirth, who always seems to play some sort of role in the Capitals' ever-revolving goaltending situation (whether it be by making Semyon Varlamov expendable in July 2011 or allowing Holtby to usurp him in April 2012 due to injury), made 33 saves in a conditioning stint with the Hershey Bears on Saturday. According to him, he has fully recovered.
Washington has not carried three goaltenders on its active roster for a significant amount of time since the end of the 2007-08 season, when Cristobal Huet, acquired at that year's trade deadline from the Canadiens, joined Kolzig and Brent Johnson during the team's postseason push.
While the current situation is "very interesting" as Neuvirth described it, the Capitals are quite familiar with their goaltending being in a seemingly constant state of flux, having utilized nine different starters since 2007.
"It's been the same here for the last, what, seven years like that or so?" Holtby said. "It's nothing new around here."
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