The situation had become untenable.
For weeks the Capitals have kept three goalies on their active roster. That is an uncommon arrangement in the NHL, where even finding two goalies steady work can be a challenge.
And so, after a pair of ugly losses over the weekend, Washington finally rectified the situation by sending rookie Philipp Grubauer back to AHL Hershey. That leaves the crease once more to Braden Holtby, who entered the season as the team's No. 1, and Michal Neuvirth, who has also won a Stanley Cup playoff series.
"It happens with an injury and then one guy comes in and he plays and plays good, gets the ball for a little bit," Washington coach Adam Oates said. "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."
Grubauer allowed six goals on 22 total shots in road losses to Columbus on Friday and the New York Rangers on Sunday. Those games overshadowed his fine overall play since a Dec. 3 recall from Hershey. He had started 14 of the last 20 games, taking advantage of an ankle injury to Neuvirth and a loss of confidence by Holtby, who hasn't started a game since Jan. 4 in Minnesota. Grubauer posted a 6-4-5 record with a 2.38 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.
"[Grubauer] played great for us, he played a lot of good games, stole us some points," forward Troy Brouwer said. "It's tough because of the situation that he's in with two goalies that have been here for a while. We've been counting on them for a long time. But he had two games where he got pulled. Whether it was his fault or not his fault, that's going to stand out in the coaches' and the [general manager's] eyes. I have no doubt he'll be back at some point, but it's a tough day to see him go down."
But "dysfunctional" also describes the Caps' overall play of late, too, and Grubauer paid the price. They have lost five games in a row and have not recorded a point in their last three.
Washington (22-19-8, 52 points) finds itself sputtering in 10th place in the Eastern Conference now entering play on Monday and out of a playoff spot now as rivals pass it by. It faces another on Tuesday at Verizon Center when the Ottawa Senators (21-19-9, 51 points), who are just behind in 11th place, visit.
Oates would not say who will be in goal for the Caps, but Grubauer's departure does open up an opportunity for either Neuvirth, who requested a trade earlier this season when his playing time was limited, or Holtby, who entered in relief in both losses over the weekend.
"That's why teams carry two goalies. You get your net, you work on a lot of things," Holtby said. "Not only the physical aspects of being comfortable and seeing a lot of shots and getting more in shape through a full practice, but your mental strength, your endurance mentally, to go through a full drill, focusing on every shot right to the end."
Holtby admitted he fought to keep his concentration from waning as he went through a full drill during Monday's practice at Kettler Iceplex. Splitting time with two other goalies for weeks had eroded that a bit.
Neuvirth, meanwhile, was hurt during warm-ups before a Nov. 22 game against Montreal at Verizon Center. He stayed on the active roster for 10 days before finally hitting injured reserve in early December.
Activated for a Dec. 10 game against Tampa Bay, Neuvirth remained a healthy scratch and didn't play again until Jan. 10 against Toronto. He stopped 32 of 34 shots that night in a win and 33 of 37 shots on Jan. 15 against Pittsburgh in a loss.
Whoever plays in net against the Senators, Oates and Brouwer each said the Caps have problems that go beyond a couple of bad games from its goalies. Those need to be addressed and fixed. But strong play in net will help by the rest of them time. For Neuvirth and Holtby, that chance has come again.
"We need one of those guys to step up and take it over," Oates said.
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