Philipp Grubauer stood atop an open bus, the District of Columbia flag waving from his arms, as he looked out at the throng of Washington Capitals fans lining the streets to celebrate the first Stanley Cup title in franchise history.
Grubauer played a key role in that 2018 title, particularly down the stretch of the regular season, when he outplayed Braden Holtby. Those performances earned him his place in net to start Washington’s first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But after two periods in Game 2, Grubauer was pulled from the ice. He never featured again for the Capitals, and shortly after he celebrated the Stanley Cup, the organization traded Grubauer to Colorado.
Three years later, Grubauer can look back on his time with Washington as a learning experience — one that has propelled him to bigger and better things. The 29-year-old netminder was named a finalist on Tuesday for the Vezina Trophy, given to the league’s best goalie. And while the Capitals started their summer early, Grubauer is leading the Avalanche in the postseason, with five wins in five starts, leaving his playoff struggles in 2018 in the rearview mirror.
“Not only that run, or not only that playoff time, I think the whole stint in Washington helped me,” Grubauer said. “Like my first season, second season, learning from Holtby, how he approaches, how he plays in the playoffs as well.”
After replacing Grubauer in net for the playoffs, Holtby went on to orchestrate the Capitals’ run to the Cup with 16 wins in 22 starts, holding opponents to 2.16 goals a game while posting a .922 save percentage. But before Holtby got hot, he closed the season on a down note, offering Grubauer the chance to shine.
Coach Barry Trotz turned to Grubauer, Holtby’s backup since he arrived in Washington for the first time in 2012, for 10 of the team’s final 16 games. The German netminder entered the playoffs as one of the most in-form goalies in the league, allowing two goals or fewer in 20 of his final 27 regular-season appearances.
But Grubauer conceded four goals on 27 shots in Game 1 against the Blue Jackets before Trotz pulled Grubauer midway through Game 2 — after he allowed four goals on 22 shots — for Holtby. And after the Cup was raised and the celebrations ended, Grubauer was the odd man out in Washington.
He was a restricted free agent, set for a pay raise. Holtby had two years remaining on his contract. The Capitals decided to stick with Holtby, and Grubauer wanted the opportunity to become a starting goalie.
“I tried to play my game, tried to be consistent the last couple years and win some games and get some points, and hopefully teams and other people saw that,” Grubauer said at the time. “That was my goal, to be a No. 1 starter.”
Grubauer found his place with the Avalanche, and he’s developed into one of the best shot-stoppers in hockey this season. His 1.95 goals against average was the second-best mark in the regular season, and he coupled that with seven shutouts — tied with Semyon Varlamov, another former Capitals goaltender — for the most in the league.
Through five playoff games, Grubauer has been even better. He’s allowed 1.60 goals against per game with a .941 save percentage. But he’s never been concerned with the individual statistics, more focused on finding the playoff wins he couldn’t in his two-game stint starting in the 2018 playoffs for the Capitals.
“I focus on myself and I focus on the outcome of the team,” Grubauer said. “It’s not really important for me the personal stuff, the personal stats. It’s important to me to get those two points and get the win and that’s what we focus on and that’s what I personally focus on, and I don’t really pay too much attention to standings and stats.”
For Washington, the two goalies who brought the team to the Stanley Cup finals in 2018 are gone; Holtby departed last offseason for the Vancouver Canucks. In their place is plenty of unknown, with a pair of inexperienced options — Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek — handling the bulk of the load this season with mixed results.
But on his own, handling the No. 1 goalie duties he sought after the 2018 campaign, Grubauer has blossomed into a star in net for the Avalanche, and he’s receiving the critical acclaim he’s quick to downplay.
“I never thought in my life I would be part of that group, sitting on that table with [Andrei Vasilevskiy and Marc-Andre Fluery as Vezina finalists],” Grubauer said. “It’s a huge honor. It’s not only an honor for myself, and I think it represents the organization really well. It’s an honor I think for the coaching staff, for [Colorado goalie coach Jussi Parkkila], for everybody that’s put in time and effort into behind the scenes.”