DETROIT — With each hurried step trainer Greg Smith took, sliding from the visiting bench to the opposite net, slipping on his medical gloves for closer inspection, more and more Washington Capitals fans found themselves forgetting to breathe. Outside the crease, their monument to endurance climbed onto one knee, then the other, testing out the legs that had split like chopsticks. Seventy-five seconds remained on the Detroit Red Wings’ two-man advantage in a one-goal game amid the jungle of a playoff race. Now more than ever, the Capitals needed goaltender Braden Holtby to stand up.
By sheer virtue of beginning Sunday night’s 2-1 win at sweltering Joe Louis Arena, his 23rd straight start dating from Feb. 17, Holtby had already snapped a 35-year-old franchise record, which he insisted meant nothing. He has never much bothered with individual recognition, and months ago even the mention of a possible all-star selection made him squirm. Instead, he found bliss in ignorance, comfort in the rhythm of so many games and now, at this most critical juncture of his 100th career victory and 40th of the season, cramps pulsing through his body.
“You fear the worst when you see that look on his face and he’s in an awkward position,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said.
The television cameras flashed to backup Justin Peters, waiting in the tunnel and wondering. Along the goal line, Holtby kept stretching and chatting with Smith. Eventually, Smith turned around and walked away. Play resumed. Defenseman Marek Zidlicky buzzed a high shot from the slot, and it rattled into the webbing of Holtby’s glove. Holtby leaned back onto the crossbar and flipped the puck to the official. The five-on-three ended with nothing. He was fine. Everything was fine.
With 35 saves, Holtby lugged the Capitals one step closer to securing a playoff berth, dropping their magic number to one. When Ottawa lost in a shootout against Toronto later Sunday, Washington clinched a spot in the postseason for the seventh time in eight seasons. Holtby became the fastest netminder in franchise history to triple-digit career victories and the first in 15 years to reach 40 in a single season. He survived 2 minutes 2 seconds of Detroit’s empty net, while his teammates bruised their bodies by blocking shots, inspired by forward Tom Wilson, who had absorbed a slap shot to the head while lying on the ice and never returned.
And once he had face-planted onto the ice in relief at the final buzzer, exhausted after the furious scramble the Red Wings mounted, Holtby and his teammates began playing the waiting game. After snatching five of six possible points on their final trip of the regular season, they had taken care of business, and any loss by Ottawa in Toronto later Sunday night would wrap up a bid. They boarded the chartered plane, opened their phones and flew home waiting for the help they would eventually receive.
“Guys have a really good sense of the moment, and they’re dealing with the moments,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “That’s what you have to do in the playoffs. “
For a club that pulled into its downtown Detroit hotel around 2 a.m. Sunday, the Capitals showed little fatigue before the first intermission. They pelted 14 shots onto goaltender Petr Mrazek, their most during an opening period in 10 games. They showed no ill effects without forward Eric Fehr, who was sidelined by an upper-body injury suffered during the third period in Ottawa on Saturday night, and even benefited from a fluky bounce to take an early lead, when forward Evgeny Kuznetsov’s wrist shot caromed off forward Drew Miller’s stick and knuckled over Mrazek’s glove.
Defenseman Mike Green spotted the Capitals a two-goal lead by sneaking a puck through Miller that flicked off Mrazek’s glove, but Detroit soon answered thanks to another goaltender interference minor committed by forward Joel Ward. Against the Senators on Saturday, Ward had sparked what became almost four straight minutes of penalty killing, which turned into a three-goal deficit by the first intermission and squashed Washington’s hopes of clinching its berth across the border.
When Ward bowled over Mrazek chasing for a puck, the Capitals found themselves backed into a similar corner. Forty-five seconds after Ward went to the box, Holtby over-committed onto Pavel Datsyuk, who fed forward Darren Helm at the backdoor for an easy layup. Then came the five-on-three, caused 29 seconds after Green backhanded a clear attempt into the Detroit penalty box when forward Troy Brouwer flopped onto a loose puck, smothering it with his glove.
When a scramble left a rebound on his doorstep, Holtby split his legs and plopped down. He smacked his glove onto the ice and watched the puck slide between his thighs, disappearing while the whistle blew. Smith hopped off the bench. He shuffled toward Holtby, and soon he walked away.
“You just have to wait for it to release,” Holtby said. “That’s happened to me plenty of times before. I’m just glad we played a pretty strong third period, no power plays to make it worse.”
Later, inside the visiting dressing room, Holtby slugged from a bottle of coconut water, trying to rehydrate. A team official brought over a puck, wrapped in tape to commemorate his 100th win, and Holtby flipped it upside down, joking about how little the individual honor mattered. Eventually, he relented and posed for pictures, smiling and still standing up.