Washington recalled goaltender Philipp Grubauer from AHL Hershey this morning, a week after the rookie goalie made his NHL debut in a relief effort against the Flyers in Philadelphia. Grubauer was backing up Braden Holtby that night because Michal Neuvirth was ill.
It’s another Neuvirth illness that necessitated today’s recall of Grubauer.
Holtby was excellent in the final 40 minutes of Tuesday’s game against Boston, holding the Bruins at bay after they took a 3-0 first-period lead. He made 24 straight saves on a night in which he had likely no margin for error in those last two periods.
The Caps rallied with two in the second and one in the third to force overtime, and Eric Fehr won it with a highlight reel goal just 37 seconds in.
Tonight, the Caps take on the reeling Florida Panthers. Washington and Florida are tied for the bottom spot in both the Eastern Conference and Southeast Division standings, and they’re missing several key performers because of injuries as well. It would be a mistake for the Caps to overlook the Cats, who drubbed Winnipeg 4-1 on Tuesday despite icing a makeshift lineup.
“I think we have to get up more for this one,” says Holtby. “Now every game we win, the next one means more because we’re giving ourselves a better chance every time we get two points.
“Tonight means the same. Every game – it doesn’t matter who it’s against –we’re fighting against ourselves. So we’re just trying to prepare the exact same way and bring a good effort.”
With Holtby set to make his 11th straight start tonight against the Florida Panthers, the Caps haven’t needed a backup goaltender much recently. They’ve played at a rather leisurely pace over the last month or so, finishing up a stretch in which they’ll play 11 games – including tonight’s – in 28 days.
(That leisurely pace is about to become frenetic. More on that in a bit.)
Holtby has played all but 25 minutes of those last 10 games for Washington, starting each of them and going 7-3. After giving up the fourth goal in a 4-1 loss to the Flyers in Philly on Feb. 27, Caps coach Adam Oates pulled Holtby in favor of Grubauer. The freshman goaltender was sharp in his debut, stopping all 14 shots he faced.
Neuvirth hasn’t played since he yielded the net to Holtby in the middle of the second period against the Penguins in Pittsburgh, a month ago today. Neuvirth came down with an illness that prevented him from traveling with the team to Philadelphia last week, and today he is again physically unable to suit up for backup duty.
With a pair of back-to-back games looming this weekend, Oates was planning on splitting the games between Neuvirth and Holtby, but the Caps coach says he may also do so with Grubauer and Holtby if Neuvirth’s condition doesn’t improve between now and Friday afternoon when the Caps leave for Long Island, the location of Saturday’s matinee contest against the Islanders.
It has been nearly 10 years since a Washington goaltender started more than 11 games in a row. Olie Kolzig drew 16 straight starts early in the ill-fated 2003-04 season, posting a 4-11-1 mark in the process.
Holtby is used to a heavy workload, but playing this many games consecutively at this level is different – in a good way – than it was in the AHL.
“It’s a lot easier at this level,” says Holtby. “You don’t have those three-in-three, back-to-back-to-backs that are killers. At the same time, my mindset has always been I want to play every game. And I shouldn’t get tired. If I played the whole season straight, I believe that I can play like the rest of the guys in here and keep my body in shape and [stay] mentally strong.”
It’s admirable that Holtby wants the crease every night. That’s exactly the mentality you want from the position. But making 11 starts in 28 days is markedly different from what lies ahead for the Capitals.
Starting with Saturday’s game against the Islanders, Washington will play 17 games in 30 nights. Eleven of those contests will be played on the road. There are five sets of games on back-to-back nights included.
That’s more than one man can handle. But it wasn’t always that way.
Way back in the days of the Original Six, teams had one goalie. He played every game, and for a lot of those years, he did so without a mask. The season was a 70-game affair in those days, and Glenn Hall once started all 70 of his team’s games for seven straight seasons, starting in 1955-56. Playing with Detroit and later Chicago in those days, Hall played in 502 consecutive games as a goaltender.
Take this one to Vegas and book it. That’s one record that will never, ever be broken.
Hall – a Hockey Hall of Famer – will tell you that he threw up before virtually all of those games. Other goalies of that era suffered through anxiety and mental fatigue and it’s certainly understandable given the pressure and the workload of their position.
It has been nearly half a century since any NHL team got through a season with just one goaltender. Boston’s Eddie Johnston was the last goaltender to start each of his team’s 70 games and to play all 4,200 minutes of the season; he did so in 1963-64. Johnston’s Bruins finished sixth that season – his second in the league – last in the NHL and 23 points shy of a playoff berth.
The 28-year-old Johnston was 18-40-12 with a 3.01 GAA that season. The experience didn’t ruin him; he played in the NHL until 1977-78 when he was 42 years old.
Holtby himself says that overcoming the mental fatigue is a much taller task than dealing with the physical fatigue when starting for long stretches of games at a time.
“That’s always the first thing to go,” says Holtby. “It always is. I think as a goaltender you notice it more because it’s more demanding as a goaltender, obviously everyone knows that.
“When you’re tired from flying back and forth and traveling and what not, it’s never really your body [that’s tired]. You know the right things to do to make sure your body is feeling fine. It’s always your mental fatigue. Some games you just don’t want to play or you’re tired. You have to find a way to battle through that and make sure you bring that focus to the table. That’s part of being a professional.”
Interestingly, the fatigue of which Holtby speaks tends to manifest itself just before or early in games rather than late in them.
“It’s usually right at the start of the game,” says Holtby. “It’s usually during warm-up or the start of the first period where you feel that fatigue. So you try and get over that hump because you know once you get into the game, it’s going to come easier and you can slip into that mental focus a lot easier as the game goes on. It’s just right at the start where you have to really do the things that you know can build your focus up and make sure you get into that.”
If you’re in the middle of an eight-hour drive and you start to feel fatigued, you can pull over and get some coffee. Throw open the windows. Turn the music up loud. Start singing.
But what does a goaltender do when a touch of mental fatigue seeps through the transom in the middle of a game?
“You learn tricks along the way,” says Holtby. “I have a lot of fun learning about that, the mental side of not only hockey but everything in general, how much you can control with your mind and your focus. It’s too long of a list to figure out. I just do what I’ve felt has worked in the past.”
Whatever it is, it’s working. Holtby is 7-3 with three shutouts, a 2.20 GAA and a .932 save pct. during his streak of consecutive starts.