It started with another unlucky bounce, a puck that glanced off Braden Holtby’s pad and then Zach Hyman’s skate for a Toronto Maple Leafs goal on their first shot of the game. Holtby didn’t move out of his butterfly position, looking behind him to see the puck was indeed within the cage, seemingly confounded as to how it got there.
That pose had defined the past three weeks for Holtby, as one frustrating goal after another piled up for six straight losses when he had been in net. Then there was that glove save in the second period, after a turnover in the defensive zone left Toronto’s Patrick Marleau all alone in the slot. Holtby was a few feet in front of the net, catching the puck with his glove and doing so with a flourish, a reminder that he’s still the same goaltender who won the Veniza Trophy in 2016 and was a finalist last season.
The game ended with the team lined up in front of Holtby, each player taking his turn tapping his mask or hugging him in congratulations. It’s a tradition after every victory, but Washington’s 5-2 win over Toronto in Saturday’s outdoor game at the Naval Academy could be meaningful for Holtby’s confidence down the stretch. In a marquee nationally televised Stadium Series contest, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz stuck with Holtby despite his recent struggles, and in Holtby’s first win in nearly a month, he rewarded that faith, playing better as the game went on and finally moving past the worst stretch of his career.
“You always know that at some time adversity is going to come,” Holtby said last week. “You try to fight it off for as long as you can and sometimes it’s inevitable, it’s going to happen, and it’s just how you react to it and how you can build. That’s how we’ve had so much success in the last few years, the adversity that we went through before that.”
As Trotz repeatedly defended his top goalie, he compared it to a star forward who may be in a scoring slump, the coach opting to stick with the struggling player because of his history of success. Two days of practices helped Holtby “reset,” as Trotz put it, but windy conditions forced the Capitals and Maple Leafs to cancel outdoor skates in Annapolis, so the first time Holtby got a feel for the new rink was in warmups 30 minutes before puck drop. Trotz trusted Holtby’s experience in that less-than-ideal situation of adjusting to unfamiliar depth perception on the fly.
Playing behind a team that has allowed 32.4 shots on goal per game this season, up from 27.8 a year ago, Holtby has a .908 save percentage and 3.00 goals against average, the worst numbers of his career. Earlier in the season, Holtby’s strong play had kept the Capitals afloat in the standings, especially as the team weathered injuries. But as Holtby had struggled throughout February, No. 2 goaltender Philipp Grubauer was playing behind the same roster — and posting a .933 save percentage and 1.63 goals against average.
“Holts hasn’t lost a lot of games in a row since I’ve been here,” Trotz said. “And it’s difficult because you’re going into uncharted waters and you’re wondering if it’s you, if it’s the team. You’re looking for answers, and sometimes the answers are just right there. You’ve got to just dial yourself in, don’t doubt yourself, and also just go out and almost steal one. But he didn’t have to. I thought the team responded real well in front of him.”
Trotz often refers to goaltenders as the ultimate “erasers” for their teammates, but the inverse might have been true early in Saturday’s game. Within a minute of the puck deflecting off Hyman’s skate, captain Alex Ovechkin scored to restore the Capitals’ lead. When Nazem Kadri took advantage of a screen in front of Holtby 7:22 into the second period, sneaking a puck between Holtby and the post, Washington defenseman John Carlson scored just 43 seconds later, again taking some pressure off Holtby.
Earlier in the season, it had been Grubauer who was on the wrong end of some unfortunate bounces and some sloppy team play in front of him. He lost his first six starts, not in net for a win until Nov. 24. Even though he was largely playing well during that stretch, he still ruminated on what he could change or improve after every game.
“I don’t think I’d ever had a stretch like that,” Grubauer said. “I don’t think Holts has ever had a stretch like that. If you look at that, you only get better from making mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, and nobody plays a perfect game for 82 games. It doesn’t happen as a forward, and it doesn’t happen for a goalie. I used it as motivation. A lot of guys, they get down on themselves, and maybe their focus shifts a little bit. But you’ve got to stay focused and have a strong mental game. You learn from the tough times.”
Said Holtby: “Mentally, you just want to get back to not thinking, just playing again. Focus on the basics that way because it’s really not that far off of where we want to be. So it’s one of those situations that feels really bad, but it’s really not as bad as it seems. It’s not far off. It’s just a little tweak here or there in a game, and those losses turn into wins.”