The test of any goaltender in the playoffs is how he performs when his teammates are not at their best — when they’re allowing odd-man rushes, are stuck in their own zone and are unable to prevent a flurry of shots. Braden Holtby passed that test Thursday night.
Holtby finished with a stunning 44 saves, the most in his career, to frustrate the Boston Bruins and drive the Washington Capitals’ 2-1 win that evened this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at two games each.
Before the postseason, Holtby, 22, said he wanted to make sure he had fun after being thrust into the high-pressure, bright spotlight role of a starting goaltender in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Thursday, as he smothered shots and robbed a Bruins offense that had been so potent in the regular season, it was clear he was enjoying the ride.
“My type of fun is intensity, is big games, big moments,” Holtby said. “I might not show it on my face, but that’s the way I’ve always been. I’ve always had the most fun when I’m battling and competing.”
It was a perfect bounce-back performance for the rookie netminder. Earlier in the week he said he wasn’t up to his usual standard when he gave up four goals in a Game 3 loss. But that’s not to say that the Capitals were all that surprised by Holtby’s outing in Game 4.
“We think he’s going to be good like that every single game and he usually is,” Karl Alzner said. “That just goes to show how good he is, how thick his skin is to bounce back after four goals last game and people saying that maybe the floodgates are open and obviously he did a good job. That’s a very veteran-like response, the way he played.”
Holtby’s clutch showing came on a night when the Capitals needed the entire roster to step up without top center Nicklas Backstrom, who served his one-game suspension for cross checking Bruins forward Rich Peverley in the face at the end of Game 3.
Though Backstrom’s absence left questions about how much offense Washington could produce, the team rocketed to an early lead on a goal by Marcus Johansson. The second-year center ripped a shot over the left shoulder of Tim Thomas (19 saves) 1 minute 22 seconds into the contest after a feed from Brooks Laich to put the Capitals ahead 1-0.
Once they took that initial advantage, though, the Capitals spent the majority of the opening frame fending off the Boston attack. The Bruins outshot Washington 10-1 through the first 11 minutes of the period and closed out the first with a 14-3 lead in shots on goal.
Holtby fought off the onslaught, doing everything one could ask of him until several mistakes on one shift resulted in an odd-man rush in favor of the Bruins.
An offensive zone turnover by Alex Ovechkin, coupled with a poorly-timed pinch up ice by Dennis Wideman, left John Erskine — playing his first game since Feb. 12 — the lone man against the rush. Peverley cashed in on a two-on-one with a shot between Holtby’s pads to tie the score at 1 at 13:12 of the first.
The start of the second period didn’t offer much in the way of a momentum change as Holtby faced another shooting gallery. He made a flashy glove save on Zdeno Chara less than two minutes in and, as the Capitals found themselves scrambling in their own zone, he made five saves in rapid succession, along with some much-needed assistance when Mike Green blocked a superb shot by David Krejci.
“I don’t recall a whole lot of second chances. When you have a goaltender that smothers everything that’s thrown his way it’s calming to the rest of your team,” Laich said of Holtby. “When you have a goaltender that’s on top of his game it really, really settles your team down. He was a leader for us tonight.”
Finally, Washington’s offense awoke from its slumber through the game’s first 25 minutes. On a power play created by a hooking call on Johnny Boychuck midway through the second, the Capitals peppered Thomas with several quality chances — five that wound up on net — but didn’t solve him.
Thomas wouldn’t be so fortunate when Washington went back on the man advantage with just more than two minutes remaining in the second period. Set up in the left faceoff circle, Alexander Semin used the hulking Chara as a screen and wristed a laser of a shot into the right side of the net to push the Capitals ahead 2-1 with 18:43 gone in the period.
“I’ll just say that every game is different,” Semin said through an interpreter. “You approach and play every game different. Today I just decided to shoot it. And I made the shot and I scored.”
In the third, the Bruins threw everything they could at Holtby once more. But the more desperate Boston became, the calmer Holtby looked in net and the more energetic the Capitals were in chasing down loose pucks, blocking shots and ensuring their foes wouldn’t find a way to tie the contest in the final seconds.
Washington blocked 12 shots in the third period, seven in the final 9:18, and held the Bruins without a shot on goal in the final 7:13. It was exactly the type of defensive effort needed to put a bow on Holtby’s performance ahead of back-to-back Games 5 and 6 this weekend.
“I think all the guys right now feel excited about what’s going on right now in locker room and in the series,” Ovechkin said. “Again, I said after first game it’s gonna be a long series and you know, I knew it was gonna happen. Again, step by step, game by game, we’re gonna take it and we’re gonna try to win series.”