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  • Philipp Grubauer was significantly better than perennial All-Star Braden Holtby in goal for the Washington Capitals late this season. So why isn't choosing him for the playoffs an obvious decison?
By Mike Harris
April 10, 2018

Tuesday, the Washington Capitals went public with what should have been one of the easiest decisions Barry Trotz has had to make in his four seasons as the team's head coach.

The same decision was also one of the hardest Trotz has had to make. Trust us, that makes sense. Such is life when you're the Capitals and it is playoff time. Nothing is ever easy.

Washington, which hasn't escaped the second round since 1998, opens the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Thursday at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Trotz and the Caps announced Tuesday that Philipp Grubauer would be their starting goaltender.

Well, duh.

Grubauer, who won 13 of 19 starts as a backup in 2016-17 and put up a 2.04 goals-against average, got off to a slow start this season. He lost his first five decisions. He got his first victory on Nov. 24 against Tampa Bay. Since then, he's been one of the top goalies in the NHL, not just in Washington. From a story in the Washington Post by Isabelle Khurshudyan: He's made 27 appearances since and has a .937 save percentage and 1.93 goals-against average.

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That's some strong stuff. Highlighting Grubauer's exceptional play was a 36-save performance on April Fool's Day in Pittsburgh, where the Caps won 3-1 over the two-time defending Cup champions (and the team that ousted them the past two seasons). It wasn't a playoff game but clinching the Metro division was on the line and Grubauer came up strong.

So why isn't this an easy call?

The goalie Grubauer has supplanted, at least for now, as No. 1 in D.C. is not just some average keeper. It is Braden Holtby, who in recent seasons has become revered in Washington and for good reason. Let's count the ways: He's won 184 games over the past four seasons including playoffs, more than anyone else in the NHL. He won the Vezina Trophy two seasons ago and likely should have won it last year. He's been an All-Star four years running. For his career, he has a 2.00 goals-against average in the playoffs. If he's not the best goalie in the game, he's very much in the discussion.

Holtby didn't have a bad season in 2017-18 but it hasn't been a Holtby-like one. He started 54 games and won 34, but his goals-against was a career-worst 2.99. Since the All-Star Game, he's been much less sharp than the Caps have come to expect. During a game against the St. Louis Blues on April 2, Fox Sports Midwest ran a graphic that showed Grubauer was 11-2 with a 1.86 goals against since the All-Star break. Holtby? He was 4-6 and 4.03. And it wasn't that Grubauer was drawing the easy assignments. He shut out San Jose in San Jose. He had that huge win in Pittsburgh.

Trotz absolutely had to pick Grubauer to start the playoffs. If he hadn't, he likely would have lost his locker room. Everyone in there, including Holtby, has seen what Grubauer has done. If that kind of showing doesn't get rewarded, what does? 

Despite being the clear right call, it is rife with the potential for agony for Trotz and the Caps—the team that has become synonymous with playoff agony in recent years.

If Grubauer has a slump at exactly the wrong time and the Caps fall into a hole versus Columbus, Trotz will be hammered for not going with the keeper with a deeper and pretty decent playoff history (Grubauer is 1-0 in playoff games, filling in for an ill Holtby in a 4-3 win over the Islanders in 2015). But suppose Trotz had chosen Holtby and he continued to be off his game and that put the Caps into a hole? Then he would have been pilloried for turning away from the guy who was so dynamic late in the season and not rewarding that kind of effort.

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No wonder these coaches get paid so much.

The only way this works is if the Caps find a way to finally have a long playoff run 20 years after their last long playoff run. If they do, that will create a completely different problem but one the Caps will definitely take if it means the postseason was pleasurable instead of painful.

Holtby, 28, has two years remaining on a deal that with a $6.1 million annual cap hit, according to CapFriendly.com. Grubauer, 26, is making $1.5 million this season and is a restricted free agent when it ends. No matter what happens in the playoffs, his play this season is going to earn him some significant coin and there's no way the Capitals will be able to tie up that much money in their goalkeeping tandem. So one or the other will be gone next season and Washington's braintrust will have to figure out which one. If the team ends up re-signing defenseman John Carlson, who is having a career year and will command very large bucks, that will be even less money available for a backup goalkeeper. 

No wonder these general managers get paid so much.

But long-term roster decisions are a story for another day. It's time for the playoffs and the Capitals have made the call they had to make in the net. Drop the puck. Let's see how it works out.

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