Braden Holtby can tick them off, the shots he should have saved that became goals. The first goal of the season, in Tampa. A shot from the slot in the home opener, against Winnipeg. And a wrister from Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang that somehow slipped by, leaving Holtby looking to the sky, then slamming his stick to the ice.
“When you can think of them that quickly, usually it’s a good sign,” Holtby said Tuesday. “But that doesn’t mean, on the other goals, there isn’t something I can do better.”
The Washington Capitals don’t occupy their current position, tied for the fewest points in the Eastern Conference, simply because of shoddy goaltending. Indeed, Holtby was in net for their recent three-game winning streak that included a shutout, and he played his best game of the season in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers – 38 saves, some worthy of a second look in slow-motion, exactly the kind the Capitals haven’t received enough of this year.
But whatever the reason, they are in this position, and after Thursday’s home game against New Jersey, they will be a third of the way through this truncated season. At some point, they have to beat a contending team, and the Devils are near the top of the East standings. And at some point, their goaltending might have to be the reason they steal one of those games.
“You want your goalie to be your best player,” said Mike Ribeiro.
Yet it is Ribeiro, a center, who has arguably been the Caps’ best player. The result is five wins in 15 games. It’s another in a string of reminders that this isn’t 2010 anymore. Back then, the Caps’ best player on any given night could have been Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom or Mike Green or even Alexander Semin, and all would have been fine.
But this team is not that team, and the declining production from Ovechkin has been widely discussed for the better part of two years.
So if Ovechkin is never again the Ovechkin who won two MVP awards, the Capitals have to win games in other ways. Or, as Coach Adam Oates said Tuesday, “You have to win every way.” And that would mean that at some point, a goalie has to do more than simply make the saves he’s supposed to make.
“We’re not going to be able to play our best every night,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “Everybody knows that. Those games when your goaltender can steal you a couple points — even if it’s just one — those are helpful down the stretch. . . . We need our goaltenders to make the big saves everybody talks about, the ones you don’t expect them to make.”
So it comes to Holtby, who in nine games has a ghastly .888 save percentage and 3.68 goals against average. Those numbers reflect both the poor play in front of him and the fact that he is just 23, and he entered this season with all of 21 regular season NHL games to his credit. He has, though, two things going for him: The knowledge that he played brilliantly during last year’s playoffs, in which he beat Boston in seven games and then allowed 14 goals to the Rangers in another seven-game series, one that ended with a 2-1 loss. And he has this attitude, both coming into this year and now:
“As far as being a number one goalie,” he said, “I don’t think I’ll ever get comfortable with that. . . . Once you get complacent like that, your job’s history.”
So it’s worth looking at a little history of the position in Washington, at least during these five straight seasons that have ended in the playoffs, the run that has set expectations so high around here. That first Southeast Division title, and first playoff spot, came in 2008 with Cristobal Huet in net. The midseason acquisition departed for Chicago via free agency, and now plays in Switzerland. Not the answer.
Huet’s free agent replacement was veteran Jose Theodore, who won 62 games combined in 2008-09 and 2009-10, but couldn’t keep his job in the playoffs after either season. Not the answer. His replacement, both times: Semyon Varlamov. The young Russian was so unfamiliar in his first playoff run – just six regular season NHL games – that the entire North American hockey world misspelled his name as “Simeon.”
But when Varlamov beat the Rangers in the first round of the 2009 playoffs, then pushed the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins to seven games in the next round, those chants of “Var-ly! Var-ly!” that rang through Verizon Center figured to be around for future playoff runs in future springs. He seemed like the answer.
But Varlamov couldn’t stay healthy, and he started making demands about being assured the top job. The Capitals couldn’t do that, so in the summer of 2011, they dealt him to Colorado for draft picks. They had Michal Neuvirth already established in the NHL, with Holtby on the way – and then they signed Tomas Vokoun as a free agent for one year, because Vokoun decided Washington was in such a good position to contend for the Cup, he would take less money to come here.
“I don’t think we anticipated being this fortunate,” General Manager George McPhee said upon Vokoun’s arrival.
With Ovechkin and Backstrom combining for just six goals to this point, with Semin in Carolina and Green nursing an injury, their fortunes now are tied to other people in other positions. Goaltender is just one of them, but it’s perhaps the most important. At some point, the position at which the Capitals once seemed so deep and promising must fulfill that promise and be the reason they win games, not just the reason they’re in them.