- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The decision had been building for weeks. As he started 10 of the final 16 in the regular season, each solid performance from Philipp Grubauer increasingly raised the question of who should be in net for the Washington Capitals, come playoff time.

On Tuesday, Capitals coach Barry Trotz revealed his hand: he’s sticking with Grubauer, for now.

Grubauer will start Thursday for Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Capital One Area. Former Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby will be the backup — making it the first time since 2011 where Holtby will not be the starter for the first outing of a playoff series.

Trotz did not commit to Grubauer for the long-term, saying he would decide the goaltender game to game.

“Grubi deserves the opportunity,” Trotz said. “The body of work, especially this year, presented itself. Trust me, it wasn’t an easy decision. I put a lot of factors in.”

For the Capitals‘ playoff hopes, using Grubauer might be the best option. Trotz, of course, wouldn’t have started him if he believed otherwise. But there’s logic in the move. 

Besides a career year from the 26-year-old Grubauer, Holtby’s struggles gave the Capitals enough pause to try something new. Washington could not afford another shaky outing from Holtby in the playoffs, especially after last season.

In 2017, Holtby finished the postseason with a .909 save percentage while giving up 2.47 goals per game — a stark contrast from his 2.07 goals against average in the regular season. General manager Brian MacLellan remarked after last year’s second round exit to the Pittsburgh Penguins that Holtby didn’t perform “quite up to his ability.”

When Capitals owner Ted Leonsis met with reporters two weeks ago, he emphasized the importance of playoff goaltending.

“We can be dangerous if our goaltending is really, really strong,” Leonsis said. “We have great forwards. We have (an) experienced backend, but it will come down to goaltending.”

This season, Holtby also hit a skid, which required him to “reset” his game. He went 2-5-2 in February and gave up 4.62 goals per game. Holtby did recover, going 5-1 in his final six appearances with a .911 save percentage.

In the meantime, Grubauer continued to shine, stringing together solid outings against contenders like Pittsburgh and Nashville.

Grubauer has given up only 2.16 goals per game since the All-Star break.

“It helps playing more and more,” Grubauer said. “The more you get on the ice, the more experience you get. You see different situations and different teams. If you sit on the bench, you can get good from watching, but you’ve got to get the experience the situation and get the ice time for sure. it helped a lot to get a couple of games in a row, too.”

Trotz said Holtby handled the demotion like an “absolute pro.” This is unfamiliar territory for Holtby, who admitted he’s not sure if he’ll have to change his routine in practice now that he’s the backup. Holtby added he’ll try to do what’s best for the team.

But don’t expect him to give Grubauer advice. Holtby said “that’s the last thing he needs,” given Grubauer’s own status as a professional.

Trotz, however, left the door open for Holtby to return to net, if need be. He called it a “blessing” to have two “really good goaltenders.”

For now, the Capitals will ride the hot hand. For the last half of the season, that has been Grubauer.

“You’ve got to be in a zone the whole year,” Grubauer said. “We didn’t have the start that we wanted to and we had to tweak a couple of things and I think since then we’ve really developed as a group here.”

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