(Bruce Bennett/Getty) Braden Holtby stops Steve Bernier on a penalty shot.

The Capitals held a one-goal lead in the middle of the second period when Tom Poti hooked New Jersey winger Steve Bernier on a penalty kill. If the referees had called a penalty, Washington would have been down five-on-three for more than a minute for the third time in two games against the Devils. Instead, they signaled for a penalty shot.

Neither one is a desirable option for a team looking to build its confidence and climb out of the basement in the Southeast Division, but Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby was up to the task.

Bernier tried to shoot between his legs but Holtby, in his sixth consecutive start, smothered the puck to preserve the advantage for the time being and maintain Washington’s momentum in an eventual 5-1 victory.

“I just approach it like another shot,” said Holtby, who finished with 21 saves. “Try to be as patient as you can. It’s actually easier probably than a breakaway in most circumstances.”

Holtby said he couldn’t really tell what type of shot Bernier was going to attempt and focused simply on giving himself the best opportunity to make the stop.

“I was just trying to be patient and not bite too hard if he faked it,” Holtby said. “It kind of stopped dead on my pad so I thought it might of snuck through. I had to look around but fortunately it didn’t go in.    “

Coach Adam Oates said he initially didn’t believe Poti’s hook was going to result in a penalty shot because Bernier regained control of the puck on his way toward the net after the obstruction.

“It’s funny because you think you know a lot of the rules. I didn’t think that was a penalty shot. I thought it was originally based on the rule that it doesn’t matter where the infraction occurs. But I thought Bernier got control of the puck again. And that he lost it,” said Oates, who added that he received clarification on the rule from General Manager George McPhee. “So it’s like, what if Bernier goes in and shoots the puck, do they still get a penalty shot after that?… I really thought that it was and then it wasn’t.”

While Ilya Kovalchuk later tied the game at 1 late in the first period, the save of the penalty shot allowed the Capitals to keep pushing forward. At the time he made the stop, the Capitals still had 1 minute 9 seconds remaining on a penalty to John Carlson for firing the puck over the glass.

“He was just a stud tonight,” Troy Brouwer said of Holtby. “He started out real, real solid saved that penalty shot, [made] a couple of big saves at key times and that’s what we need out of him. We need him to make sure he can keep us in games so that when we get into those third periods where we need wins we can do what we did tonight.”