From their early days in Hershey to making up one of the NHL’s best goaltending duos of recent years, Washington Capitals netminders Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have spent years building a relationship where they can rely on each other.
“We’ve obviously worked together for quite some time now, which is good,” Holtby said. “We never really had a problem trying to push each other.”
Though hockey is primarily a team sport, where it takes a collective effort to win a game, the goaltender acts as the backbone, a lone ranger of sorts. For 60 minutes a night, he takes residency between the posts, his lone job to keep the puck out of the net. And though it’s an individual effort, Grubauer said it’s important to have a strong relationship with your fellow netminder.
“We push each other. I think we work both hard and it’s always important because there’s only two [goalies] on every team,” Grubauer said. “You can always talk and have conversations with the goalie coach and your goalie teammate. I’ve learned a lot from Holts just watching and having him here and being able to see him play. It’s pretty awesome.”
The Learning Curve
It takes a lot to be a goaltender in the NHL, and as Grubauer has moved up the ranks, he has witnessed the difference between the levels of hockey being played.
“Guys shoot so much more accurate, not so much harder, but they shoot really accurate, so you give them one inch or give them anything, they convert on those chances and it’s in the net,” Grubauer said. “You always got be on top of your game at practice. You gotta be best every day, otherwise, they’re beating you left and right.”
When it comes to this transition, goaltending coaches play a huge role. Mitch Korn was the Capitals’ goaltending coach for years, helping Braden Holtby go from a promising prospect to a Vezina-caliber netminder, while also grooming Philipp Grubauer, and now, he is the director of goaltending and has passed the reins to Scott Murray, who has worked with many of the organization’s goaltenders as the Hershey Bears goaltending coach.
“We’ve worked together in the past, and Mitch and Scotty have worked through these last three years to basically groom this transition so it’s simple and easy,” Holtby told the Washington Post. “Scott’s obviously a very intelligent hockey goaltending mind… and it will be nice to still have Mitch around when he can be and kind of guide us the right way because his experience, you can’t really put a price on that.”
Grubauer agreed, saying that having Murray and that transition from the AHL has helped him build on his skill and transition well to the highest level of hockey.
“Going through the different leagues and adjusting to the types of hockey that’s played has been really helpful,” Grubauer said. “Also, the stuff we do with Scotty, the goalie coach here, is preparing us for every practice and every game.. you gotta make sure you work hard every day, make sure you have success, otherwise you’re faster out of this league than you came in.”
At the same time, the German netminder, who represented Team Europe in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, also gets a lot of help from Holtby, and that both of them are able to offer plenty of advice to one another.
“If you have tough games, tough tough times, I think talking and helping out, your goalie partner is huge or your goalie coach,” Grubauer said. “We get along pretty well… if you have tough times, you connect well and we talk it out. It’s pretty cool to have, but we certainly help each other on and off the ice.”
High Praise for Each Other
As both goalies push each other forward, both hold each other in high regard. Hotlby, who has watched Grubauer develop and make his way up to the NHL, believes that he thrives due in part to his mindset and outlook.
“He’s got a very level head about him,” Holtby said. “He’s battled through some really tough adversity at the start of this season, been given some games where there in chance to win really, it’s just the way we’ve played as a group or our situations, and he stayed here mentally, kept working hard in practice and he hasn’t one time put the blame on our team.”
With Gruabuer taking on increased accountability and responsibility, Holtby said it shows a lot of growth, which makes him a better player at the end of the day.
“That shows maturity, that shows that he’s mentally strong,” Holtby said. “The way he’s played shows one of the reasons why he’s a very good goalie between his ears, his mind is NHL-level mental game.”
While Grubauer has taken a lot away from watching Holtby, who won the William Jennings Trophy last year after surrendering just 182 goals through 82 games, one of the biggest takeaways has come from watching him handle the puck.
‘There’s so much stuff over the years that you learn and improve on. It’s all stuff that’s been there,” Grubauer said. “He’s pretty good at playing the puck, so [that] is one thing I picked out a little bit more than others. I don’t know about other goalies, but he’s been awesome. He’s an awesome teammate and I think everybody’s happy to have him here.”
At the end of the day, Holtby believes that both are similar in their respective goals and efforts, as their main objective is to make saves and carry their team to as many victories as possible.
“I think we think the same way in the fact that whatever goalie’s playing that night, we just want to win a game,” Holtby said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Sammi Silber covers the Capitals beat for The Hockey Writers and is an NHL contributor with Sporting News. She has also contributed to USA TODAY College, Huffington Post, FanSided and the Nation Network. Silber has written four books and recently worked on graphics for the film, The California Golden Seals Movie.