Grubauer could carry Avs, if playoff history doesn’t repeat

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Philipp Grubauer is a Stanley Cup champion, but you can’t blame him if he doesn’t really feel that way.

Grubauer wrestled the Washington Capitals’ starting job away from Braden Holtby with a superior 2017-18 regular season, but things fell apart to start Washington’s Round 1 series. The Columbus Blue Jackets stormed off to a 2-0 series lead, and with Grubauer allowing four goals in each of those losses, the Capitals turned to Holtby. And the rest (including Grubauer’s time with the Capitals) is history.

Grubauer admitted that “last year was tough” to NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski, yet he also explained his resiliency to the Denver Post’s Kyle Frederickson, whether that boiled down to earlier career struggles, the mixed feelings of being left behind during that Capitals run, or his bumpy start as a goalie with the Avs.

“You can fall in a hole and get really miserable,” Grubauer said, “or be positive and wake yourself up.”

And, goodness, did Grubauer ever wake himself up down the stretch.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

After playing at a below-backup level in his first 21 games (a putrid .891 save percentage) of 2018-19, Grubauer was splendid after the All-Star break, sporting a tremendous .948 save percentage over those 16 games.

That was absolutely crucial, too, as Semyon Varlamov struggled with injuries and inconsistency, while the top line couldn’t drag the Avs to the same number of wins, what with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen both being hurt at times, and Nathan MacKinnon falling in frustration. Grubauer wasn’t the MVP for the Avalanche all season long, but they wouldn’t have barely outlasted the Coyotes for the West’s final playoff spot without him.

And his teammates know it.

“Gruby has been unreal,” MacKinnon said, via the Denver Post. “He’s been our best player the last 20 games. We’re very fortunate he’s been so good because you can’t ask that much of a goaltender.”

If you need visual evidence, feast your eyes upon this outstanding save against Blake Wheeler from late in that postseason push:

It’s fair to question if Landeskog and especially Rantanen will be their usual selves during Game 1 on Thursday at 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN; live stream), or during much of this Round 1 series, in general. Even if they are their usual dominant selves, the Flames boast two lines that could bring almost as much, if not more, to the table than Colorado’s top guns.

Yet, with Mike Smith serving as the Flames’ Game 1 starter despite struggling to the point that people wonder if he might torpedo Calgary’s chances, Colorado’s best hopes likely lie with Grubauer vastly outplaying Smith. That’s especially true if the two teams’ possession trends continue into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Still, Grubauer has only appeared in four playoff games during his career, suffering through an .835 save percentage and winning just one of those contests. That’s a tiny sample size, and one that’s spread out over three different postseason runs, but the bottom line is that people can be unforgiving when it comes to playoff stumbles, and the Flames could rank as a very unforgiving opponent.

Grubauer made the difference to the Avalanche squeezing into this postseason, and we should expect Colorado to lean on him just as heavily against the flammable Flames’ attack.

Avalanche – Flames Game 1 from the Scotiabank Saddledome will happen Thursday night at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Here is the livestream link.

For more on these two teams, check out the series preview. Get a rundown of Thursday’s full slate of Game 1 action with The Wraparound.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.