ARLINGTON, Va. -- The biggest decision of Philipp Grubauer's career -- before Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz decided to start the goaltender in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round -- might have been the one he made when he was 12.
Growing up in Germany, Grubauer chose hockey over soccer but was undecided on a position. Though he'd been a goaltender since he was 6, he also liked playing defenseman.
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"I always switched back and forth because I liked playing outside [the net] and it gave me a different perspective at what to shoot on and what shooters might do," Grubauer said. "Eventually, I had to make a decision."
Grubauer wanted to be a goaltender when he took up the sport at age 5, but his first youth coach wouldn't let him. When that coach left, Grubauer jumped into the net the first chance he got.
When it came time to pick a position, his parents told him, "Do what you enjoy the most." So that's what he did.
It's worked out for Grubauer and the Capitals, who chose him instead of 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby to open the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Capital One Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVAS3, FS-O, NBCSWA).
The 26-year-old's only previous playoff experience was Game 2 of the 2015 first round against the New York Islanders. Called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League because Holtby was sick, Grubauer made 18 saves in a 4-3 win.
"It's just like any other game in the regular season," Grubauer said. "You've got to save the puck. Yeah, it's an important game, but it doesn't need to be more than it is."
It's been 20 years since the Capitals advanced past the second round of the playoffs. During that run to the 1998 Stanley Cup Final, they used another German goaltender, Olaf Kolzig.
Video: Capitals decide to start Grubauer in Game 1
"Hopefully he can take it a step further than I did," Kolzig said. "I got the team to the Final, so hopefully he can take them a step further and write his own history."
Kolzig was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and grew up in Canada, but his parents were from Germany and he represented the country internationally, including at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the 2006 Torino Olympics and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
As a boy, Grubauer had knowledge of the NHL that was limited mostly to the Don Cherry-hosted highlight videotapes his father would bring home, but he knew all about Kolzig. When the Capitals selected Grubauer in the fourth round (No. 112) of the 2010 NHL Draft, he was aware they had an affinity for German goaltenders.
The Capitals also selected goaltender Robert Muller, who was from Grubauer's hometown of Rosenheim, in the ninth round (No. 275) of the 2001 NHL Draft. Muller died from a brain tumor in 2009 when he was 28. Though Muller never made it to North America to play, Grubauer didn't forget that he was a Capitals draft pick.
"He was a guy I looked up to, so it was kind of special," Grubauer said. "I wanted to make sure I represented my hometown and my country well over here."
When Grubauer turned pro in 2011, Kolzig was the Capitals' associate goaltending coach who oversaw their prospects in Hershey and with Reading in the ECHL. Kolzig also worked with Grubauer as Washington's goaltending coach in 2013-14.
"The first time I got to know him or said hi to him or talked to him was almost a dream come true," Grubauer said.
Kolzig knew about Grubauer before the Capitals drafted him. As co-owner of Tri-City in the Western Hockey League, Kolzig followed the Ontario Hockey League and the German goaltender who played for Belleville, Windsor and Kingston.
Grubauer was already playing professionally for Rosenheim in the German Ice Hockey League when he represented Germany at the 2008 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Ontario and was named to the tournament all-star team. While there, he witnessed the excitement of sold-out OHL games in London and decided it was time to leave his homeland to play major junior hockey.
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"I thought that would be the best chance to make it [to the NHL] rather than staying in Germany," Grubauer said. "How many players come out of Germany and go straight to the AHL or straight to the NHL? It doesn't happen too often."
Belleville selected Grubauer with the No. 25 pick of the 2008 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft. When goaltending issues threatened to derail Windsor's bid to repeat as Memorial Cup champion in 2010, it acquired Grubauer in a trade.
He went 16-2 with a 2.69 goals-against average and .909 save percentage in 18 playoff games to help Windsor win the Memorial Cup again.
"I'd be lying if I said I thought he'd be as good as he is now," said New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall, who was Grubauer's teammate in Windsor. "He was undersized (6-foot-1), but the one thing is he always played well in the big games. I remember that."
Pittsburgh Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl has similar memories from playing with Grubauer for Germany in the 2008 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship and the qualifying tournament for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.
"He's such a good player," Kuhnhackl said. "He's such a reliable goalie back there. He's so confident. He could easily be a No. 1 guy."