ARLINGTON, Va. — Philipp Grubauer was 18 and had only been in North America for a year and a half when he walked into the Windsor Spitfires locker room as the latest member of a stacked junior team.
“He was really German at that point,” Windsor teammate Taylor Hall said. “He was very quiet, and he was a goalie, so you just kind of let them do their thing.”
Grubauer did his thing all the way to the Ontario Hockey League title and the Memorial Cup. Last year, he did his thing to help Germany qualify for the Pyeongchang Olympics.
This spring, he did his thing to earn the starting job for Thursday night’s playoff opener at home against Columbus. He got the nod over 2016 Vezina Trophy winner and longtime No. 1 Braden Holtby. Grubauer doesn’t make a whole lot of noise with his unassuming personality or how he makes saves — he just makes them with such regularity that he looks like a No. 1 NHL goaltender.
“I’m really proud of him because he never lost focus,” Germany national team coach Marco Sturm said. “I know it was a long wait, but he always waited for his chance and he finally has it right now.”
Grubauer bided his time through four years in the minors before getting to back up Holtby. It looked like that arrangement was ending after two seasons, but when Vegas general manager George McPhee and goalie coach Dave Prior — who drafted Grubauer in 2010 — didn’t take him in the expansion draft and the Capitals didn’t trade Grubauer, the 26-year-old was back for a third year as No. 2.
“I think we have had Grubauer valued more than the league has had,” Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We feel he was going to be a good No. 1 goalie. And the rest of the league, in general, say that he hasn’t had time to prove it.”
Getting lit up for eight goals in Philadelphia in the Flyers’ home opener was an inauspicious start, but since Oct. 27, no goalie in the league has a better goals-against average than Grubauer’s 2.06 or save percentage better than his .933.
When Holtby struggled in February and March, Grubauer took the reins and went 7-3-0 down the stretch.
“Grubi was able to take the ball and run with it,” said former NHL goalie Olie Kolzig, who served as Capitals associate goalie coach earlier in Grubauer’s career. “It just comes from experience. You know you belong. When you’re first coming in as a No. 2, you’re just getting your footing and getting to know the league. But then you play games, you practice with these guys, you build relationships with your teammates, you’re accepted, you have success in games. All of a sudden, you’re getting older, you’re getting more mature, you’re taking in information and then you know.”
Grubauer, now 6-foot-1, was always undersized. He was never outworked.
“Quiet guy, but always worked hard,” said Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban, who played with Grubauer in Windsor. “To get to this level, especially in that position, you have to be really dedicated to your craft. He’s obviously done a really good job of working at his game to get better and that’s why he’s playing for one of the top teams in the league now.”
Grubauer went 20-1 through the OHL playoffs and Memorial Cup in 2010, and yet Hall said, “I’d be lying if I said he’d be as good as he was now.”
“He always played well in the big games,” said Hall, now an MVP candidate with the New Jersey Devils. “When we needed a save, it was always there.”
That reputation followed Grubauer to the American Hockey League, where he stopped 54 of 58 shots at Providence to help steal a second consecutive game for eighth-seeded Hershey in the 2013 Calder Cup playoffs. And it continued to international play, where he stopped 66 of 68 shots in must-win qualifiers to get his country into the Olympics.
Last year, when the world championships were in Cologne, Grubauer landed at the airport and went straight to the rink. High-pressure situations don’t bother Grubauer.
“It seems like that’s the way he likes it,” Sturm said. “He’s so athletic but also really calm in the net and he made the big saves when he had to. That’s something a team builds off.”
The Capitals have recently built their game up in front of Grubauer, and Kolzig has noticed them playing hard for him like they did for Holtby when first called up.
As he goes into his first Stanley Cup playoffs as the starter, Grubauer is trying to stay calm and not think about the stakes. Washington has not advanced past the second round in 20 years.
Playing the single-elimination Olympic qualifier best prepared Grubauer for this. He couldn’t lose. And he didn’t.
“The mental approach just to be dialed in and pay attention to details,” Grubauer said Wednesday. “I learned one shot at a time. Don’t look ahead. Don’t look to the next game. Just one shot. One situation.”
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