It has been a rough postseason for Washington Capitals’ netminder Braden Holtby.
The former Vezina Trophy winner stopped 35 of 37 shots in the overtime win against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 1, made 47 saves in a double-overtime loss to Toronto in Game 2 and then allowed four goals on 28 shots in Saturday’s Game 3 loss. On Wednesday, Holtby’s uneven performance almost got him pulled from the game after the second intermission, but a 5-on-3 power play for the Maple Leafs to start the third period eliminated the option.
Repeated four-goal games is not the norm for Holtby, but what’s wrong? Is he off his game? Or are the Caps skating in front of him the larger problem?
Holtby is partially to blame for the Capitals inability to shut the door on a feisty Toronto squad, especially when dealing with high-danger chances, those that originate in the slot or the crease: His save percentage against these shots has fallen off a cliff, dropping to a career low .771 against Toronto during this series.
Perhaps backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer would fare slightly better — his regular-season save percentage on high-danger shots at even strength (.837) was higher than Holtby’s (.822) — but that still wouldn’t improve the Caps’ defense, which has left Holtby out to dry on more than a few occasions during this series.
During the regular season, the Maple Leafs created 10.1 scoring chances per 60 minutes (the second-best mark in the league) with three expected goals created off these attempts, based on shot type (wrist, slap, etc.), distance and angle. In the playoffs, Toronto is not only creating an increased number of chances (10.3 per 60), but it’s producing a higher quality as well (3.2 expected goals per 60).
Washington’s defense is allowing more than 35 shots per 60 minutes of ice time in the playoffs, five more than Holtby has seen since the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, with a larger percentage of shots coming off rebounds (defined here as any shot taken within two seconds of uninterrupted game time of any other shot by the same team) and off the rush — any shot taken within four seconds of uninterrupted game time of any event occurring in the defensive zone or within four seconds of uninterrupted game time of any giveaway or takeaway.
You could make a case that the rebound shots are on Holtby. And, by the eye test, he’s had some trouble holding onto the puck in this series. (See: the shot that led to Tom Wilson’s diving, goal-saving heroics below.)
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 19, 2017
But the Leafs’ approach in the offensive zone isn’t making it easy on Holtby. When he isn’t dealing with second-chance shots or odd-man opportunities, he’s seeing traffic in front of the net, limiting his ability to stop the high-danger chances while making it easier for deflections and tip-ins to find their way into the back of the net.
Jake Gardiner's point shot is deflected by Zach Hyman and puts the Leafs back in it, 2-1 game. pic.twitter.com/1aSxnLMnhI
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 19, 2017
Part of the solution requires Holtby to play better, but the Capitals’ defense needs to improve too, with a swap of Nate Schmidt for Brooks Orpik when Karl Alzner gets healthy the best possible option.
With Orpik on the ice, the Maple Leafs have created shots that can be expected to create almost four even-strength goals per 60 minutes of ice time. That drops to 2.1 expected goals per 60 with Schmidt on the ice while playing a similar level of competition and given comparable zone starts. In fact, Orpik has now been on the ice for seven of Toronto’s 14 goals — five of those at even-strength — with the goal scored by Auston Matthews in Game 4 a direct result of Orpik losing track of Matthews on the play.
Auston Matthews scores his second goal of the playoffs and the Leafs are back in this game, 4-3 in the third period. pic.twitter.com/Rtj2hD3Clg
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 20, 2017
His attempts to clear the crease on the Leafs’ last goal of Game 4 weren’t exactly praiseworthy either.
“He brings tons of energy,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said of Schmidt. “His drivetrain is real high, all of those things you love in a player. So, he’s got an opportunity and he’s making the most of it.”
The Capitals will want to continue to rely on Schmidt, rather than Orpik, if they hope to advance to the next round. Holtby? Unless he continues to struggle with rebounds, the goaltender with the NHL’s best playoff save percentage (Hint: It’s Holtby) is the one the Caps should stick in the crease for the rest of the series.