Backup goaltenders have a tough lot in life, as far as hockey players go. They get what Caps coach Barry Trotz once referred to as “junk mail” assignments, starting most frequently on the second night of back-to-back sets and on the road. As a result, their results can be skewed, and there can be a great deal of inconsistency in the levels of defensive and offensive support they receive.
Philipp Grubauer started for the 11
th time this season for the Capitals on Tuesday night against the Vancouver Canucks. It was his fourth start at home, and his fourth start that wasn’t part of a set of back-to-backs. Grubauer was excellent, and his teammates in front of him were as well, and the Caps skated off with a 3-1 victory over Vancouver.
Grubauer stopped 37 of the 38 shots he faced, including all 20 he faced in the third period. The lone goal he surrendered came on a two-man advantage in the first period, and the Caps supported him with three goals, or more than a goal above his average “run support” of 1.9 goals per game coming into Tuesday’s tilt.
Tuesday’s victory was Grubauer’s third of the season, and all three have come on home ice and in games that weren’t part of back-to-back sets. The win is Washington’s fifth in succession, the team’s longest winning streak of the season, and it’s also the Caps’ 10
th straight triumph on home ice.
“I would say that at home here, we’ve sort of got some traction,” says Trotz. “Obviously the fans are always great here, we’ve got last [line] change, and it’s been a hard place for teams to come into, and that’s what we want.”
Washington was a shade sluggish out of the gates. The Caps had the game’s first power play opportunity before the game was four minutes old, but weren’t able to generate as much as a shot on net. The Canucks went a man to the good a couple of minutes later, and when Washington was deemed guilty of having too many men on the ice, the Canucks had a two-man advantage of 68 seconds in duration.
The Canucks needed just 26 seconds of that time with which to take a 1-0 lead. Parked at the top of the paint, Daniel Sedin tipped an Alexander Edler point drive past Grubauer for a 1-0 lead at 8:23 of the first period.
Late in the frame, the Caps answered with a strong shift in the attack zone. Nicklas Backstrom outmuscled Canucks center Nic Dowd for the puck behind the Vancouver net, causing Dowd to tip the net over – but not off its moorings – on Vancouver goaltender Jacob Markstrom. Backstrom, meanwhile, pushed the puck to Alex Ovechkin in the left circle, who put it to the right point for John Carlson. Carlson’s drive got through Markstrom and into the net, and a subsequent Vancouver challenge for goaltender interference was hastily dismissed. Carlson’s fifth goal of the season evened the game at 1-1 at 15:13.
Less than three minutes later, the Caps had a lead they would not relinquish. Madison Bowey fed Lars Eller in the neutral zone, and Eller skated into Vancouver ice, driving the center lane. In a one-on-two situation and without a good passing option, Eller called his own number and delivered a nifty shot through the legs of Canucks defender Ben Hutton and past Markstrom’s waving glove hand, giving the Caps a 2-1 advantage at 17:52 of the first.
In the second period, the Caps put on a passing and possession clinic. Only some good goaltending, some missed opportunities, and some occasional overpassing kept the Caps from putting up a crooked number in the middle period, but it was one of the Capitals’ best second stanzas of the season to date. They outshot Vancouver 18-4 and out-attempted the Canucks by 30-12. Early in the frame, they added to their lead with what would turn out to be the final goal of the game.
Evgeny Kuznetsov took a shot on net off the rush, and Markstrom made a blocker stop. But Canucks defenseman Erik Gudbranson inadvertently knocked the puck in, making it a 3-1 game and giving Kuznetsov his 13
th goal of the season at 4:57 of the second.
“I think everybody was having fun,” says Eller of the Caps’ second-period performance. “A lot of zone time and a lot of puck possession. That’s how we play when we’re at our best. We just didn’t get the goals, but we were doing a lot of good things.
“It wasn’t just the zone time; it was the [defensemen] moving it quick to the forwards, and forcing turnovers. Really good transition game that really put [the Canucks] on their heels.”
For the Canucks, Tuesday’s loss was their fifth in a row (0-4-1) and their 13
th in their last 15 games (2-11-2).
“I think our first 15 minutes, we played great,” says Canucks defenseman Michael Del Zotto. “We were assertive, we were playing with energy. After that [Carlson] goal, they got some momentum, and they’re on their home ice. They’re a great hockey team. It wasn’t going to be 60 minutes of us dominating them. They gained some momentum back and were able to regroup after the first, and we didn’t go a good enough job in the second.”
The Canucks put 20 pucks on Grubauer in the third, but most were long distance and/or perimeter shots that posed little in the way of actual danger for the Caps, who needed to play only 60 minutes for just the third time in their last 10 games.
“The second period was unbelievable,” says Grubauer. “Actually, the whole game was unreal. But if we play like we did in the second period, we’re going to win a lot of games on the road and at home, too.”
Grubauer has now earned the Caps at least a point in each of his last five starts (3-0-2) and he picked up his first win in more than a month, since Dec. 4.
“He definitely deserved that,” says Eller of Grubauer. “At the beginning of the season, we did not play very well in front of him, and he really deserved to get another win today, so I’m happy for him.”