Thursday night was a busy one for goaltender Braden Holtby. As the Washington Capitals vied for a valuable two points that would allow them to take the Southeast Express from 10th to third in the Eastern Conference standings, they needed quite a few eye-popping saves from their 23-year-old No. 1 netminder.
Going from his right to his left across the goal mouth near the midway point of the second period, Holtby robbed former Capital and Hershey Bears forward Keith Aucoin from point-blank range.
Six minutes later, Frans Nielsen slipped by John Carlson with a toe drag but the puck hit Holtby’s pads and trickled back behind the net, where the Islanders reclaimed it once more. Holtby was trying to get back in position as New York whipped the puck around to Andrew MacDonald in the high slot. MacDonald got the shot off as quickly as possible but it wasn’t fast enough to beat Holtby, who stopped that one too.
“He battles, he never gives up on plays and that just shows his perseverance and the willingness he has to win,” Troy Brouwer said. “And that rubs off on our team because if we see him make a couple of those huge pad saves in the second, one very, very late in the third, those really lift your team. And the guys want to play for him when he’s playing like that.”
As the young goaltender stood up again in front of the net after thwarting MacDonald’s shot the Verizon Center crowd broke out in what was one of several “HOLT-BY, HOLT-BY” chants on the evening. The salute was well deserved.
“Holts was a stud. He was a stud throughout the game. He made some tremendous saves,” said Brooks Laich, who left the game with an undisclosed injury. “They had some great looks where, we saw it from the bench, we thought it was going in and he was able to get a pad across and then came up big in the shootout. Halfway through the game you could tell he was going to be the first star. He played great. He stole us that one.”
Late in the third period after the Islanders tied the game on a bang-bang play that Holtby could do little to prevent, the visitors continued to buzz and create quality chances in search of a second point. New York, after all, is in a playoff hunt of its own.
Holtby made what might have been the save of the night when he made an improbable save to get a piece of a shot by Brad Boyes with less than two minutes to play in regulation. In the shootout, he was flawless stopping Nielsen, Boyes and John Tavares.
“They’re a very underrated team, from what I’ve seen – at least how they’ve played against us,” Holtby said of the challenges he faced from the Islanders. “They have a good mixture of everything, and obviously [goaltender Evgeni] Nabokov played great again, and we knew what to expect, in this game especially. We knew what they bring to the table, and I was very impressed how our team reacted and how we played all game.”
Holtby finished with 35 saves in regulation and overtime against the Islanders, in what was his 10th consecutive start. He has started 27 of Washington’s 37 games so far this season and with 11 contests remaining, there’s no reason to believe he won’t get the vast majority of the workload the rest of the way.
His long stretches of consecutive starts are a product of Holtby’s typically sturdy performances and also the unpredictable health of Michal Neuvirth, who was unable to suit up in three planned starts this season because of illness or injury. But Holtby has handled the volume of starts well and Coach Adam Oates likes to see a goaltender who is more than happy to start every game if the Capitals let him.
“That’s one of the great qualities that you see that we talked about this morning when talking about when do you rest him,” Oates said Thursday night. “Every time we’ve asked him when Neuvy’s been hurt or had the stomach problem – ‘You want to play?’ ‘Sure. I want to play.’ Which is great. And for me, just because I witnessed it the last couple years with Marty [Brodeur in New Jersey], Marty expects to play every single night. He doesn’t want to not play, and I see that with Braden, which is a good quality.”