- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2017

With his 38-save performance against the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday, Washington Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer recorded his third shutout of the year.

That ties the 25-year-old goaltender with the seventh-most shutouts in the NHL this season. But the key difference between Grubauer and the other goalies with as many shutout performances is the number of games played.

Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, their starter, has three shutouts in 41 games. John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks has three in 39 starts. The Winnipeg Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck has that many in 33 starts.

Grubauer, a backup to 2015-16 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, has three shutouts in just 13 starting efforts.

When NHL teams throw in a backup goaltender to give their starter a night off, the opposition generally takes the ice expecting to put more goals on the board. That’s not the case this year with the Capitals. When Holtby, who has an impressive .929 save percentage in 40 games, takes a breather, teams face Grubauer, who rocks a .931 save percentage.

“[Grubauer’s] been playing well all year for us when he’s been out there,” forward Marcus Johansson said. “He’s real, real solid. It’s awesome. To have two goalies like that, I mean, that’s a luxury.”

Grubauer has improved his game significantly since last season, when he struggled in the latter half of back-to-back games, often getting little or no goal support. After finishing last year 8-9, Grubauer was determined this season would be better.

About two-thirds into the season, he’s already posted 10 wins. He’s focused on churning out good performances — and he says he’s getting more help.

“I think going into games last year, I think my first period was pretty good and then second periods lacked a little bit and then the last period was good again,” Grubauer said. “This year, I’ve been getting a little more defensive support than I did in the past, but I’m trying to be a bit more consistent and make more things easier save by save. There’s not really a whole lot. We do a lot of goalie work, and the more you do it, the more it becomes natural.”

Part of Grubauer’s improvement has been rebound control. In 2015-2016, Grubauer’s rebounds too often ended up in dangerous places such as the slot or to the opposing side. Now he’s gobbling up shots or kicking them to the corners, away from pressure.

Sometimes, it helps to be lucky, Grubauer said.

“It’s based on situation,’ Grubauer said. “Every situation is different. You want to keep them away from the side, but sometimes the players are shooting so good, it’s not always possible. It’s been bouncing for me in the right direction when I’m trying to direct them in the right direction. Guys in front of me are helping me out pretty good.”

Statistics back up Grubauer’s point about defensive help. According to the hockey metrics site Corsica Hockey, Grubauer is facing just 3.73 high-danger shots per game (defined as the area immediately in front of the net and in the slot). Last season, Grubauer saw 4.00 high-danger shots per game.

This season, Grubauer’s save percentage is second-highest among NHL backup goalies, trailing only Nashville Predators goaltender Juuse Saros, who has a .941 save percentage in 10 games. Among goalies with at least 15 appearances, Grubauer is behind only Detroit Red Wing goaltender Jimmy Howard (.934) and Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk (.932), who is arguably the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender.

“He’s been so good,” forward Brett Connolly said of Grubauer. “He doesn’t get in there all the time, but when he does …. he’s just been really good. He comes to the rink every day and works hard, competes, and when [coach] Barry [Trotz] gives him the nod, he’s ready to go. He’s been excellent, and he’s a guy we can count on when he does go in there.”

Grubauer’s improved play has big implications for the NHL’s upcoming expansion draft.

The Las Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL’s newest franchise will select one player from every team, and when, as expected, the Capitals choose to protect Holtby, the clear-cut franchise goaltender, Grubauer will almost certainly be exposed.

Las Vegas general manager George McPhee will select three total goaltenders from among the 30 teams for that draft, and each time Grubauer steps between the pipes, it seems more and more likely Grubauer will be one of those picks.

McPhee, the former Capitals general manager, is very familiar with Grubauer: He selected the German-born goaltender with the 112th-overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft.

The possibility of becoming an every-night player isn’t something Grubauer spends time mulling.

“I don’t care right now,” Grubauer said about starting. “I’m just looking to help this team and win the games I play and help the team get the points. When Holts needs a rest, I’m confident that I can step in.”

• Tommy Chalk can be reached at tchalk@washingtontimes.com.

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