ARLINGTON, Va. — The biggest question facing the Washington Capitals ahead of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets has been answered. Philipp Grubauer will start Game 1 Thursday at Capital One Arena (7:30 p.m.; WFED 1500AM).
“It’s a privilege to start,” Grubauer said after practice Tuesday morning.
The decision to start Grubauer over longtime No. 1 Braden Holtby, a three-time All-Star and 2016 Vezina Trophy winner, had been building for weeks.
As Holtby struggled after the All-Star break, including a stretch that saw him post a 1-5-2 record with a 4.82 goals-against-average and .854 save percentage from February 11 through March 6, Grubauer gradually saw more playing time.
From March 8 on, Grubauer started 10 of the final 16 games of the regular season, going 7-3-0 over that stretch with a 2.31 goals-against-average and .925 save percentage. One of Grubauer’s best games came in a critical 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 1 at PPG Paints Arena. Grubauer made 36 saves as the Capitals clinched the Metropolitan Division.
“He’s done a great job down the stretch here,” said general manager Brian MacLellan. “He is playing with confidence. He is quiet in the net. He’s got good rebound control. He is just taking it to a new level, I think.”
Head coach Barry Trotz informed his goaltenders Monday of his decision to start Grubauer in Game 1.
“I just think that Grubi deserves the opportunity,” Trotz said. “I think the body of work, especially this year, presented itself. Trust me, it wasn’t an easy decision. I put a lot of factors in. Braden has been the guy for a long time, and his body of work … he’s done so much for us. But I thought taking everything into consideration and all that, I think Grubi deserves to start.”
Grubauer has never started more than four games consecutively in the NHL, and Trotz didn’t exactly anoint him his full-time playoff starter.
“We’re going to go game by game,” Trotz said.
Holtby had started 59 of Washington’s previous 60 playoff games since 2012 and was reluctant to reveal any details of his conversation with Trotz earlier this week.
“That’s a conversation that’s between us,” said Holtby, who went 34-16-4 overall during the regular season with a 2.99 GAA and .907 SV%. “My job is just to focus on my game, getting it the best it can get to. Coach’s decision who plays or not; doesn’t have anything to do with me. I’ll just focus one practice at a time, trying to be a positive influence around the team and go from there.”
Grubauer has started one game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a 4-3 win over the New York Islanders in Game 2 of their first-round series in 2015 when Holtby was ill.
Weeks before the Capitals selected Grubauer in the fourth round of the 2010 NHL Draft, he backstopped the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires to the Memorial Cup, the biggest prize in Canadian junior hockey.
“Grubi has been a No. 1 goaltender,” Trotz said. “He is won a championship as well. This is part of the evolution of a young man who keeps growing as well, just as Braden has when he was in that position a few years back. As I say, we’re pretty blessed to have two pretty good goaltenders right now.”