WASHINGTON - Observers had to figure something was up when the Capitals were both cryptic and defensive Friday morning. In fact, it was minor-league goalie Philipp Grubauer who was up, and it became clear why Friday night. He was starting.
No. 1 goalie and workhorse Braden Holtby did not participate in the morning workout at the practice rink in Arlington, Virginia, because he was, in coach Barry Trotz's words, "under the weather." The coach still insisted that Holtby would start. But about a half-hour before Game 2 against the Islanders, the team announced that the 23-year-old from Germany would make his Stanley Cup playoff debut.
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Either Holtby's illness took a turn for the worse during the day or the Capitals wanted to keep the Islanders guessing. In any case, the crowd at the Verizon Center cheered loudly when Grubauer was introduced before the opening faceoff. He got another big cheer when he made his first save 1:02 into the first period. He also was saluted with a chant of "Grooooooo."
His final cheers came after he made 18 saves in the Capitals' 4-3 victory that tied the series at 1-1.
Fans no doubt remembered the only other NHL game he played this season, a 3-2 shootout win over the Ducks on Feb. 6. "It was nice to get that game. It was important for me to win that game and get the two points," he said Friday morning. "At that point, it was the best team in the league."
As for the more recent past, Grubauer, the starter for Hershey in the American Hockey League, said he was summoned Thursday. "Pack your stuff and get up here," he said, recalling the conversation.
When he was asked Friday morning if he was going to play in Game 2 about eight hours later, he said without a smile (or a wince), "I don't know. I haven't talked to anybody."
Holtby did not have a good game on Wednesday night and did not take part in the optional practice Thursday, but it was natural to assume that he would start Game 2. Aside from Trotz and backup goalie Justin Peters asserting that he would, there was this: Holtby played 73 games this season, tying a franchise record.
"He's a battler," Trotz said in the morning, when he still was sticking to the story that Holtby would start. He added that the goalie was at the practice rink, just not on the ice. "He did a little bit of movement today, he did all that stuff," Trotz said.
The coach did not specify what the "movement" was or what the illness was. Before game time, the team officially listed him as day-to-day.
Grubauer has played in 20 NHL regular-season games, including his first start, a 5-2 loss to the Islanders on March 9, 2013. He was born in Rosenheim, Germany, and played for his country's national junior team. The assistant coach was former Islander Uwe Krupp.
The goalie moved to Canada as a teenager and played with Krupp's son Bjorn on the Belleville team in the Ontario Hockey League. Grubauer later led the Windsor Spitfires to the Memorial Cup, the top prize in Canadian junior hockey.
On Friday night, he joined a team that was desperate for a win but not outwardly flummoxed by the goaltending situation. "We're grown men," forward Joel Ward said. "We've been in these situations before where we've had guys in and out of the lineup."