(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)


For Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, it was as if taking off his gear would make his first-ever game against the Pittsburgh Penguins all the more real.

When reporters entered Washington’s Verizon Center locker room, moments after the Capitals lost to the Penguins, 6-3, Holtby was still in his shoulder and leg pads, head buried in his hands.

Disappointment then turned to anger when an equipment manager came by his locker stall to collect his belongings. Belt buckles were undone aggressively and articles of clothing were hurled into his hockey bag.

For the third time in four appearances this season, Holtby hardly resembled the dynamic goalie who emerged last spring during the 2012 NHL playoffs. The Penguins scored their first five goals on just 14 shots Sunday and Holtby stopped just 20 of the 26 shots he faced. The 22-year-old netminder now has a 4.52 goals against average and .862 save percentage this year.

Washington Coach Adam Oates considered pulling Holtby from the game after he allowed two goals in 37 seconds during the second period, figuring it could provide the Capitals with a “spark.” He eventually decided against it.

“I really felt like last year when Holts came up, he really gave this team a rallying cry and I thought, ‘You know what, he’s earned the right to stay in there and fight through this,’” Oates said.

The question, though, is whether fellow goalie Michal Neuvirth should have gotten the start. Neuvirth is 2-0-1 in his last three starts against the Penguins with a .954 save percentage, 1.32 goals-against average and two shutouts.

Though Holtby was coming off an encouraging start in Washington’s win over Philadelphia Friday, he conceded part of his struggles Sunday were the product of not being familiar with the tendencies of Pittsburgh’s offensive weapons.

The first two goals – from Pittsburgh’s Paul Martin and Matt Cooke — weren’t entirely his fault, the result of first-period deflections. But Holtby never seemed to get his bearings, even after his teammates managed to score tying goals twice.

He took all of the blame for the Penguins’ third goal, a shot from forward Kris Letang that trickled into the net under his arm at the 7:33 mark of the second period. Holtby said he was trying to be “too perfect” with his positioning, and the error was compounded when Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby fed linemate Chris Kunitz for a blazing one-timer 37 seconds later.

“I feel like it’s well within my capabilities to make that save,” Holtby said of the third goal. “Those are the ones that if you’re gonna win games, that’s where momentum changes.”

Indeed, that’s exactly what happened, as several Capitals called that sequence deflating after the game. Pittsburgh took a 5-2 lead into the third period and Kunitz capped off Holtby’s miserable afternoon by scoring his third goal with less than eight seconds remaining.

Hats soon rained down from the rafters of Verizon Center, the opposing fans in attendance chanting “Let’s Go Pens. Holtby could only stare at the ice and wonder what went wrong.

“There’s been better days,” he said. “Puck seemed to go in again tonight.”