The first several weeks of the 2017-18 season have been a struggle for Caps backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer. After posting a 13-6-2 mark for Washington last season, Grubauer went winless in his first seven appearances (five starts) of this season.
Most of Grubauer's starts came in the second of back-to-back games, and he was frequently the victim of poor offensive support and mediocre defensive play in front of him. But on Friday night at Capital One Arena, Grubauer was given his first starting assignment at home this season.
Facing the best team in the NHL a day before his 26th birthday, Grubauer stopped 25 of 26 shots he faced against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and he finally picked up that elusive first win as the Caps came out on the right side of a 3-1 decision on Friday in the District.
Video: Beagle, Grubauer lift Caps to win against Bolts, 3-1
Last season, teams were getting up for playing games against the Caps, and Washington was seeing the opposition's best effort, night after night. This season, the Lightning is in that position. Tampa Bay has suffered only four regulation losses on the season, but the Caps handed the Bolts their second such setback in their last three games.
"I think we think we're a little bit better than we are," says Lightning coach Jon Cooper. "There is a reason we have the record that we have, it's because we've worked to get there. I just don't know if we're putting in that same kind of effort, that urgency and determination, that got us off to the start we did."
For a few minutes, it looked like more of the same for Grubauer, who hadn't played with a lead for more than 353 consecutive minutes in goal coming into Friday's game.
Before the first period was a minute old, the Caps found themselves a man down. Brooks Orpik went to the box at the 44-second mark of the first for tripping Lightning winger Yanni Gourde.
Vladislav Namestnikov staked the Lightning to a 1-0 lead on the ensuing power play. Nikita Kucherov's shot from the top of the right circle banked off Namestnikov - who was parked at the right post - and bounced high into the cage behind Grubauer to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 advantage at 1:22.
Video: Caps Postgame Locker Room | November 24
"I was laughing - here we go again," says Grubauer of being in a 1-0 hole before the game was even 90 seconds old. "It was going wide and it found its way in. Could have gone either way."
It took the Caps a couple of minutes to get their bearings, but once they did, they were excellent over the remainder of the first frame. Washington generated three odd-man rushes during the middle portion of the first frame, but the Caps were unable to generate as much as a shot on net with any of those opportunities.
Late in the first frame, the Caps pulled even on another odd-man rush. Tom Wilson wrested the puck from Lightning winger Chris Kunitz high in the Washington zone, then the Washington winger skated up the right side of the ice on a three-on-two break with his linemates. Wilson shoveled the puck to Nicklas Backstrom, who went back to Wilson just as the trio entered Tampa Bay ice. Wilson fed Alex Ovechkin on the left side, and the Caps captain cranked a one-timer past Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy with just 1:24 remaining in the period.
Grubauer made a couple of key saves on a couple of Tampa Bay's top six forwards in the second. One of them came when the game was still 1-1, and the second came after the Caps nudged ahead by a goal.
Just ahead of the halfway mark of the game, Grubauer stoned Ondrej Palat from the slot, reacting quickly to shrug off a good shot from in tight with his blocker.
Washington was unable to convert on a pair of power plays in the middle of the middle frame, but the Caps finally broke through and got Grubauer a lead in the latter stages of the second.
Video: Caps 365 | November 24
Dmitry Orlov sent Devante Smith-Pelly into Tampa Bay territory with the puck. Smith-Pelly dished to Jay Beagle along the left wing boards, and then the former made a beeline for the net. Beagle put a shot on goal, and Vasilevskiy made a pad stop. But Smith-Pelly was right there to deposit the loose change for a 2-1 Washington lead at 14:36 of the second.
To that point in the game, Vasilevskiy had been leaving some rebounds out in the slot, but this time the Caps got to the loose change before a Bolts defender could do so.
"I think that shot was a perfect example," says Smith-Pelly. "I think most goalies leave that shot out there. It's something we practice a lot, just going off the far pad and going to the net.
"It was a perfect shot; it just landed on my stick. All I had to do was just tap it in."
Smith-Pelly's goal gave Grubauer his first lead since Oct. 9 when the Caps faced the Bolts in Tampa, a span of 387 minutes and 47 seconds.
Grubauer preserved that rare lead with an excellent save on Lightning center Brayden Point in a one-on-one situation with about 90 seconds remaining in the period, kicking out the right pad to thwart Point's power move to the net.
Tampa Bay had the better of play in the third, but Grubauer stopped all 10 shots he faced in the final frame and the Caps killed off a pair of penalties to Evgeny Kuznetsov. When Beagle slid a backhander into a vacated Tampa Bay net with 2:08 remaining, the Caps had two points and Grubauer had that first victory.
Video: Barry Trotz Postgame | November 24
"Early, they score a minute - basically - into the game," says Caps coach Barry Trotz, "and you're like, 'Okay, here we go.' But he settled in, and when it was 1-1 I thought Grubi made some real key saves for us.
"He settled in really well right there. They were getting people to the net and they're dangerous all around, but he made some huge saves for us. We got him more than a goal [in offensive support], so it was good. I know the guys were thrilled to get a win for Grubi, because they know he shows up as a pro every game."