TAMPA — Braden Holtby hadn’t taken to the ice in a live game in 11 games when he skated out to the visiting net in the second period Monday night in what had been dubbed the most important regular season game of the Washington Capitals’ season to date. But Holtby didn’t show any signs of rust and put forth a perfect relief effort against the Tampa Bay Lightning to ensure that Washington would remain atop the Southeast Division standings for at least a few more days.
Holtby made 21 saves in 45 minutes of play and then stopped each Lightning shooter — Dominic Moore, Adam Hall and Vincent Lecavalier — in the shootout to go along with a goal by Alexander Semin and shootout tally by Alex Ovechkin to seal a 2-1 Capitals victory.
The win extended Washington’s winning streak to five games and increased its lead over the Lightning for the top spot in the division to two points in a game that saw the Capitals lose their starting goaltender at the conclusion of the first period and their No.1 center late in the second. In what seemed to be an unpredictable final meeting between these now fierce rivals, Holtby provided the boost and clutch saves that Washington required.
“Right off the bat he comes in and there’s a power play,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Holtby. “I think he has three great chances. [Simone] Gagne had a fabulous chance and when he saved that you knew he was going to be on. If they had scored on that first or second shot, whatever it was, he could have said: ‘Man it’s my first game back in three weeks.’ But it didn’t and he’s a competitive guy. That’s why we’re happy we’ve got three good young goalies.”
Holtby made his first appearance for Washington since a 2-1 shootout loss to the Rangers on Jan. 24 and saw his first game action since injuring his knee on Feb. 23 while playing with the Hershey Bears after starter Michal Neuvirth was unable to return following the first intermission.
A shot by Tampa Bay’s Nate Thompson ricocheted off Neuvirth’s mask just 23 seconds into the contest and metal from the cage wound up in the goaltender’s eye. Boudreau said it took some time to get the debris removed from Neuvirth’s eye but that the 22-year-old Czech native should be fine. Nicklas Backstrom left late in the second period after falling on his left hand and fractured left thumb, Boudreau said, adding that he believes Washington’s franchise center will be okay.
Before Neuvirth exited the game though, the Lightning took a 1-0 lead 121 / 2 minutes into the first period when Sean Bergenheim redirected a point shot by Martin St. Louis just four seconds into Tampa Bay’s second power play of the night. It marked the 40th time in 67 games this season that the Capitals have given up the first goal in a contest and the sixth straight game where an opponent opened the scoring. Washington is 20-16-4 when it allows the first goal.
Unlike the last meeting between these two teams, a 5-2 Washington win on Feb. 4, Tampa Bay was not going to allow the Capitals to simply hang back and make chess-like moves. The Lightning attacked from the start, outnumbering the Capitals in the corners with help from their defensemen and heavily out-chanced Washington, especially in the middle stanza but Holtby was up to the task.
Tampa Bay’s early barrage of shots, including prime chances on the power play helped get Holtby warmed up.
“The first shot I faced was [Steven] Stamkos hitting it off the post,” Holtby recalled. “I think that was a huge thing for me because they thought maybe they could just throw everything on net and maybe it would get by again. All you really want to do when you come into a situation like that is face a little rubber and get into the game a bit and that’s fortunate what happened tonight.”
Perhaps the biggest break for the Capitals came less than four minutes into the third when what appeared to be a second goal for the Lightning was waved off because of goaltender interference. Washington appeared to receive a jolt of energy from the fortunate circumstance and began pressing more intensely against Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson (29 saves) until Semin scored with roughly 51 / 2 minutes left in regulation to salvage a point.
The Capitals couldn’t beat Roloson a second time even during four-on-four play despite 10 shots in the five-minute overtime forcing a shootout. Holtby’s first NHL shootout, against the Rangers back in December, didn’t go his way so he made it a point to be better prepared the next time around.
“I think you can learn from any mistake that you make and that night [against New York] I made a lot in the shootout,” Holtby said. “So I got a little bit of help in that, in order to make sure I was more patient. When I went back down to Hershey I really worked on my shootouts and breakaways to make sure I was better next time.”