Photo: NBC Sports Washington
After allowing six goals in a 6-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on October 11 in his Washington Capitals debut, many questioned whether or not goaltender Pheonix Copley was ready for the NHL. His performance with the Hershey Bears of the AHL last year were not impressive as he went 15-17-6 with a 2.91 goals against average and a .896 save percentage. While he did struggle last season, it is important to note that the team’s two best defensemen (Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey) in addition to two of their best forwards (Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson) from the previous season, were in the NHL because the Capitals lost some key contributors from the team that won the Presidents Trophy for the second consecutive season the year prior.
The Capitals traded goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who earned the right to be their No. 1 goalie down the stretch and at the start of the playoffs last year, in order to create cap space to sign defenseman John Carlson as he could have become an unrestricted free agent the next week. That meant Copley, 26, would have to find the Copley that recorded a save percentage of .931 and 2.15 to end the 2016-17 season in Hershey after the Capitals re-acquired him from the St. Louis Blues as part of the deal that landed defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline that season.
While Copley and the Capitals lost 6-0 in the 26-year old’s Capitals debut, he was not the one to blame. The team played the night before against the Vegas Golden Knights, a game that generated a lot of hype around the fanbase since it was the first time the two teams met since the Capitals beat them in the Stanley Cup Final last June and went into Newark to play in the Devils’ home opener, a game where there was little hype around the fanbase and organization. Copley made 30 saves, many of which were stellar and kept the score from being worse as the Devils had a lot of quality chances that night.
Because he had little run support against the Devils, when Copley won his first NHL game making 27 saves in a 4-3 shootout win at the Calgary Flames, the team went to him showering Copley with hugs and smiles even though center Nicklas Backstrom was the one who ended the shootout.
Copley was put under pressure when he started all four games of a four-game road trip in four extremely tough buildings to play in in mid-November because starting goaltender Braden Holtby was hurt. He held two of the league’s best offenses (Winnipeg Jets, Colorado Avalanche) to two goals each and he did it while the team was without top-six forwards T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov for a majority of those two games. Copley got pulled in the closer of that trip when he allowed four goals on 22 shots, including three in a span of 1:15 to begin the second period, against the Montreal Canadiens.
Since getting pulled in that game against the Canadiens, Copley was won each of his five starts since recording a save percentage of .933 and a goals-against average of 1.97 over that stretch. In that span, he faced two of the highest shot totals of the season for him, including a 35-save performance in his first NHL shutout in a 4-0 win at the Ottawa Senators on December 22. Copley had a save percentage below .900 in a game only three times this season.
After goaltending was the biggest question going into the season with Grubauer gone and Copley’s performance in the AHL last season, Copley has gone 9-2-1 with a save percentage of .914 and a save percentage of 2.61, including a 9-1-0 record in his past 11 appearence. Through the Christmas break last season, Grubauer posted a save percentage of only .898 and a goals-against average of 2.98.
While Holtby’s .915 save percentage is slightly better than Copley’s, Copley is a big reason why the Capitals currently own a team save percentage of .911 despite the fact that the defense has allowed the the fourth-most high-danger chances against (506), according to Natural Stattrick.
After a rough NHL debut, Copley has put the Capitals in a similar situation last season when they had a “1A and 1B” goaltending tandem down the stretch last season. While he has more to prove, the native of North Pole, Alaska is off to a nice start in his Capitals career. Many believed going into the year that Holtby could be a candidate to get the most starts in the NHL this season but Copley has played solid enough to earn some extra starts and is rewarding the Capitals for their faith in him.
Like Grubauer did last season, Copley is giving Holtby some more rest for him to get ready for the playoffs, which he desperately needs, and is providing solid backup goaltending in the process.
By Harrison Brown