As Capitals run into another 'hot goalie,' they face their own net dilemma

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Braden Holtby came on in relief of Philipp Grubauer in Game 2. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

There was something familiar about the Capitals’ march from the locker room tunnel as the third period of Game 2 was about to start. There was Braden Holtby, taking his usual deep breath before stepping onto the ice, his mask falling over his face with that first stride. He was like a white knight there to save Washington’s playoff hopes, Capital One Arena cheering his return in net even as the team trailed by a goal to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

But 200 feet away from him stood the goaltender who ultimately decided the game. This time of year traditionally hasn’t been kind to Sergei Bobrovsky, and while he hasn’t been perfect this postseason, he’s made the timely saves the Blue Jackets needed to take a 2-0 series lead with the next two games in Columbus. The Capitals have taken 88 shots in the first two games, and Bobrovsky has stopped 81 of them.

Hot goaltenders have long haunted Washington’s short-lived playoff runs, from Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak in 2010 to Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury last season. But this time, the problem seems to be in the Capitals’ net. Washington is the only team to have scored seven goals or more this postseason and find itself in a two-game series hole. Before this Eastern Conference quarterfinal started, Coach Barry Trotz said it was a “blessing” to have both Holtby and Philipp Grubauer playing well enough that he had to choose between the two of them. After Grubauer was replaced for allowing four Columbus goals on 22 shots through two periods in Washington’s 5-4 overtime loss on Sunday, the team is now likely to make a change in net before Tuesday’s Game 3.

“We just needed that one save,” Trotz said on Sunday night. “We just needed that one save, and we weren’t able to get it.”

In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Trotz didn’t announce who his starting goaltender will be for the next game because he has yet to share his decision with Holtby and Grubauer. But the safe bet is Holtby, the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner who lost his starting job because he struggled in the second half of the season. Holtby has the second-best all-time career postseason save percentage.

“The body of work of both those guys have been terrific, obviously Holts a little longer than Grubi in terms of that,” Trotz said. “I have absolute confidence in both goalies. They’ve been terrific. They’ve won us a lot of games, and one thing about them is that they bounce back all of the time.”

Criticism of Washington’s five-on-five production is fair: the Capitals have managed just two even-strength goals in their two games, relying on five power-play goals for their offense this series. But the Blue Jackets have similarly scored four of their nine goals with a man-advantage unit that was the seventh-worst in the regular season with a 17.2 percentage. The series has been unusually special teams heavy for the playoffs, when penalties are typically called less often, and at even-strength, the Capitals have predictably gripped the stick too tight. Washington had a 9.4 even-strength shooting percentage during the regular season, second-best in the NHL, and that’s fallen to 3.45 percent through these two playoff games, according to hockey metrics site Corsica. Bobrovsky deserves some credit, but that’s also unsustainably low.

“We don’t come to outplay them, we don’t come to outshoot them,” defenseman John Carlson said. “You have to win, and we didn’t do it.”

“Just finish,” Trotz said. “We look at all the scoring chances, and the 5-on-5 scoring chances are coming. I wouldn’t say so much in Game 1, but last night they came. We made some adjustments. We couldn’t find the back of the net. We had some pucks off some posts. We had some pucks behind their goaltender. They just didn’t go over the goal line. So it’s a little bit of finish, a little bit of luck, all those things combined.”

Washington’s defense was a weakness all season, but over the last 25 games, the team averaged 2.88 goals-against per game, so scoring three or four goals as the Capitals did in the first two games should be enough for at least one favorable result. Just one other team has scored four goals this postseason and lost: the Colorado Avalanche, the Western Conference’s eighth seed playing the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators. In 41 playoff games under Trotz, Washington has allowed 2.32 goals per game, and Columbus has scored nearly twice as much in this series. That’s where the focus shifts back to the Capitals’ goaltending, an issue last postseason, too, when Holtby had a .887 save percentage in Washington’s second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Trotz understandably picked Grubauer to start the season because he had outplayed Holtby down the stretch. In his final 27 appearances of the season, Grubauer had been the steadiest goaltender in the league with a .937 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average. Holtby’s play declined in February, when he went 2-5-2 with an .873 save percentage and 4.62 goals against average, and that opened the door for Grubauer to start 10 of the team’s last 17 games. Holtby’s play improved after that miserable stretch, and he was 5-1-0 in his last six starts with a .911 save percentage and a 2.67 goals against average.

The day after Holtby was told Grubauer would be the postseason starter, the first time since 2011 that a goaltender other than Holtby was in net for the first game of playoff series, Holtby vowed to be supportive of his teammates and a positive influence in the locker room. But he was also unsure of what came next, what his routine would be like as he tried to stay ready to play without actually doing so.

“That’s something I’m going to fool around with,” Holtby said last week. “Try to work as hard as I can in practice and be ready, if need be.”

The Capitals have never needed an answer in net more than they do now.

More Capitals and Stanley Cup playoff coverage:

Blue Jackets-Capitals Game 2: Capitals blow two-goal lead again. Lose in OT again.

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