From terrifying realization to ecstatic completion, the greatest Washington Capitals save Olie Kolzig ever saw — The Save, as it can already be canonized — took 1.7 seconds. It started when Braden Holtby raised his left arm in panic, trying to alert teammates the puck had taken a demented bounce off the boards. It ended with rubber deadening against the paddle of Holtby’s stick, the preservation of a 3-2 Washington Capitals lead over the Vegas Golden Knights late in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals, a miracle.
Kolzig, arguably the greatest goalie in franchise history and Washington’s netminder when it last reached the finals, in 1998, instantly hailed The Save on Twitter as the “greatest save I’ve ever seen!” But what happened, exactly, in those 1.7 seconds that made it so great? How much owed to Holtby’s ability? How much was simple luck.
Kolzig helped answer those questions. In a phone conversation Thursday afternoon, Kolzig broke down Holtby’s lunging, diving, no-rebound save and separated what Holtby did and what the hockey gods took care of. It turns out, they both did a lot in 1.7 seconds.
“At that point as a goalie, you’re doing everything and anything to get a piece of the puck,” Kolzig said. “Luck plays a lot into that. The last five, six years, our organization hasn’t had a lot of puck luck when it comes to the playoffs. We’re due our fair share, and that was definitely one of them. You’re throwing everything at the puck, and hope you do enough to get a piece of it.”
The Save started with the routine dumping of a puck into the corner to Holtby’s right. With the clock ticking toward 2:00, the puck curled around the corner, headed around the boards. Somehow, it took a bounce and glided to the middle of the ice, through the crease, just missing Holtby on the way toward his left side.
“Probably 50 to 75 percent of the time, he would play that puck,” Kolzig said. “For whatever reason, he decided to stay in the net, which obviously was the best decision. The puck almost bounces in off him. Just having that state of mind, he reacted to it, was able to get ready.”
The puck landed directly on Cody Eakin’s tape. On Holtby’s right, Alex Tuch streaked toward the post. In a normal 2-on-1, Holtby would have skated out of his net and then started slowly giving ground, allowing him to be aware of both players and to cover the entire net.
“If that guy does make a [pass], your feet are in motion, and that motion you can transfer to a lateral move,” Kolzig said.
But this was as abnormal as a 2-on-1 could be. Holtby had started tucked into his own net, his defense totally out of position. He had no choice but to lock all of his focus on Eakin.
“As a goalie, you don’t have really time to assess what’s in front of you,” Kolzig said. “You’re just playing the guy that’s got the puck. Normally, he wouldn’t be quite as locked in on the shooter. His feet wouldn’t have been dug in quite as much. In normal circumstances, Braden would have been able to get across the net on his feet. The play was so bang-bang, he had to lock into the shooter.”
So when Eakin passed to Tuch, Holtby had no chance to dart across the crease. “You can’t really transfer that back-to-front momentum in a lateral play,” Kolzig said. From a stuck position, like a soccer goalie, Holtby could only leap.
“Then, it’s just instinct,” Kolzig said. “I think a lot of goalies get too technical, don’t have enough instinct. What Braden did was purely instinctual. He knew he was caught, and he was in desperation mode.”
Even in his desperation, Holtby made a crucial, subtle move. He stuck out his stick almost perfectly flat, maximizing the surface area he had to block a puck. It wasn’t much, but Holtby needed to fill any centimeter he could.
“You’re trying to expose as much of the stick as you can, even though it’s only four inches wide,” Kolzig said. “That’s four inches that has a chance to get a piece of the puck. Also, the stick is an extension of your arm. You’re turning your blocker over to increase a covered area. That’s four inches of coverage he wouldn’t have normally.”
Seeing a wide-open net, Tuch rushed his shot. Kolzig said that may have been his undoing, and provided the break Holtby needed to make his athleticism and execution matter.
“If players have more wherewithal, they would elevate the puck a lot higher,” Kolzig said. “The player is so excited, he sees the net, and he just rifles. That was enough for Braden. Had he elevated it six inches or higher, that’s a goal. You got to remember, opponents, they’re feeling pressure, too. Because of pressure and circumstance, they’re squeezing the stick a little tighter, too.”
The puck smacked into the paddle of Holtby’s stick, off the ‘M’ in “CCM.” The angle of Holtby’s stick again played a key role: The puck deadened and landed in front of Holtby, where he smothered it without giving the Knights another crack.
“The most amazing thing was, there was no rebound,” Kolzig said. “You’re a sitting duck if there’s any sort of rebound.”
In the aftermath, Holtby described The Save as just another hockey play. That, of course, is ridiculous. The play required some luck, but Holtby also made his own breaks.
“Everything he did, he did skillfully,” Kolzig said. “The rest of it is luck. That’s hockey. The hockey gods were smiling. But you’ve got to be in position to get lucky as well. From a goaltending standpoint, he did everything he could to get in position to stop the puck, which is all you can do. It’s tough to say. As a player, you can’t control luck. But you can put yourself in position to give yourself the best possible chance of getting lucky.”
Read more Capitals coverage: