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Penalty Kill Helping Grubauer, Hurting Holtby

December 23, 2013

Bruce Boudreau and his Anaheim Ducks will bring an eight-game winning streak to Washington Dec. 23 for a showdown with an inconsistent Capitals team on the verge of a goalie controversy.

The Ducks (26-7-5) haven't lost during regulation since Nov. 26. Washington, D.C., where Boudreau made his NHL coaching debut in 2007, is the last stop on Anaheim's four-game road trip. The Ducks are among four Pacific Division teams with 50 or more points.

Meanwhile, Capitals head coach Adam Oates has spent much of this season trying to establish consistency. The Caps (19-13-4) have been parked in second place behind Pittsburgh in the mediocre Metropolitan Division.

The Capitals rely on their strong power play (NHL-best 35 goals), but frequently give away leads.

Alex Ovechkin's 401st NHL goal (30th this season) gave Washington a 4-2 lead against the New Jersey Devils with 11:53 left during regulation Dec. 21. But the Devils scored twice to tie the game and then won it in overtime.

Another lingering issue is the goaltending logjam. As of Dec. 22, the Capitals had three healthy goalies on their roster. Michal Neuvirth hasn't played an NHL game since Nov. 22 and told Dec. 19 that he wanted playing time, either with the Capitals or another NHL team.

Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have been sharing the goaltending duties as of late.

Grubauer, a 22-year-old German, has posted impressive numbers since being recalled from AHL affiliate Hershey after Neuvirth suffered an ankle injury Nov. 29.

Grubauer has allowed one power-play goal (16 times shorthanded) during his six games. His save percentage is better on the power play (.973) than even strength (.931).

The statistics normally could be discounted because of such a small sample size, but they jump out when compared with Holtby's recent performance.

During each of his past three starts, Holtby has allowed two power-play goals. During those games, opponents were 6-of-11 in power-play opportunities, compared with 1-of-11 during Grubauer's past three games.

Opponents have scored at least one power-play goal against Holtby during nine of his past 12 games.

Carolina center Riley Nash beat Grubauer on a second-period man advantage during Washington's 4-2 victory Dec. 20. But that's been it. Grubauer (4-0-1, 2.05 GAA) has turned away 36 power-play shots.

But Grubauer has yet to face an elite power play. The best power play unit he's seen was that of the New York Rangers (12th best power-play percentage as of Dec. 22). Florida's NHL-worst power play managed four shots on Grubauer Dec. 13.

Holtby (13-10-2, 3.00 goals-against average) has had to deal with some of the NHL's best power plays, including Pittsburgh (No. 1), Chicago, Toronto, St. Louis, Montreal and Nashville. The Devils (11th) were 2-for-2 during their overtime win against the Capitals.

Holtby has a .926 even-strength save percentage and a .870 power-play save percentage (146 shots, 19 goals).

During seven games, Neuvirth (2-3-1, 2.83 GAA) has a .916 save percentage at even strength and .912 on the power play.

Time will tell whether Grubauer can maintain such a pace, because there's a natural correlation between a team's penalty-kill success and a goalie's numbers.

Minnesota netminder Josh Harding has an NHL-best 1.51 goals-against average, and his numbers drop off on the power play. His save percentage at even strength is .948, but .887 when a man down. The Wild's penalty kill is fifth-worst in the NHL.

Meanwhile, Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's stats (.921 even strength, and .928 on the power play) reflect, at least in part, the fact that Pittsburgh has the second-best penalty kill in the league.

Washington's penalty kill has been on a slow, but steady downward course. Early during the season, the Caps were among the league's best with a 90 percent success rate, but they've sunk to 10th worst (81.3 percent). That's another favorable sign for Grubauer.

Oates planned to announce Dec. 23 which goalie would start against Anaheim. After that game, the Caps will be off for three days and then host the Rangers Dec. 27.