As the Capitals look to repeat their Stanley Cup performance, one of the key factors this season will be solid goalie play. With last year’s stalwart goaltender Phillip Grubauer no longer on the team and a largely untested goalie taking his place, the performance in the crease this season will be important for the Caps to make a deep playoff run again.
Last season, the team was fortunate to have two strong, reliable goaltenders, which is the norm these days for any team to go deep in the playoffs. The Capitals exemplified this last season, with Braden Holtby and Grubauer combining to staunchly defend the Caps net. Grubauer’s goaltending came in clutch when Holtby hit a wall in February and Grubauer effectively became first string goalie until early March.
Before then, Holtby’s play had been strong from October until January, during which he went 26-10-2, with a .915 save percentage. However, for the month of February, his save percentage dropped to a career low, .873. Holtby’s rough patch, which was partly attributable to the Caps struggling defense, gave Grubauer the opportunity to showcase his talent and get the team back on track during the regular season.
“It was nice to have a little bit of a break to realize that at some point, look at that film, look at what we’re doing physically, and getting back to those basics,” Holtby said last week, according to nhl.com.
Grubauer was able to not only fill in for Holtby, but also put up stats that proved he was more than a back-up goalie, as evidenced by his high trade value this past offseason.
The 26-year-old goaltender’s stats were so good, in fact, they showed he was the best goalie in the league, statistically speaking, from Thanksgiving until the end of the regular season (1.93 GAA, .935 save percentage, 3 shutouts.) Some Capitals observers believe the team would’ve had a hard time winning their third consecutive Metropolitan Division Champions title without Grubauer.
While the Caps will miss Grubauer’s dependable net-minding, there’s hope moving forward that 26-year-old Phoenix Copley will be able to take on the workload and give Holtby a break between the pipes.
Copley’s got big skates to fill this season as Holtby’s No. 2 if he wants to match Grubauer’s impressive play, but Capitals coaches seem confident in his abilities, first drafting him in 2014 and then reacquiring him from St. Louis in 2017.
The 6’4”, 200-pound goalie appeared in two NHL games for the St. Louis Blues over the span of two seasons, and although his stats weren’t remarkable in those two games (.831 save percentage, 3.75 GAA), his performances in Hershey and the Caps first preseason game were more promising.
Copley spent three seasons in Hershey, where he averaged a save percentage of .917 and 2.41 goals allowed per game. In the Caps first preseason game on Sept. 16, Copley stopped 20 of 21 shots.
“He knows the challenge that’s in front of him and I thought he was real solid [in Sunday’s game],” head coach Todd Reirden said last week, according to nbcsports.com.
However, Copley struggled against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, letting in four goals, three of which came in the first period. If Copley doesn’t live up to expectations, there’s talk of Ilya Samsonov, the Caps first round draft pick in 2015, making an appearance or two in goal this season. Samsonov could fill the back-up goalie position as early as the 2019-2020 season, assuming his first year in North America goes as planned. According to nbcsports.com, Samsonov is believed to be the future starter in goal for the Caps.
“There is a chance (I could back up Holtby), but I need to work harder,” Samsonov said in an interview last year.
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