VANCOUVER — The day after Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby was pulled after giving up three goals on three shots against Colorado, he sat in his dressing-room stall at the team’s practice facility and answered question after question about his lackluster start.
Figuratively looking over Holtby’s shoulder was the Capitals’ goalie of the future, Ilya Samsonov — was that bringing extra pressure? Holtby, a 10-year veteran who has spent his entire NHL career in Washington, is playing on an expiring contract — was that adding an extra layer? After opening the season 1-1-2, was something in his game just not clicking?
As fans began to whisper about a goaltending controversy, Capitals Coach Todd Reirden squashed any such talk during a news conference that day. Still, he gave the next start to Samsonov, who posted an impressive win against Toronto. But Reirden went right back to Holtby against the New York Rangers two days later, and the status of the team’s top goaltender hasn’t been in doubt since.
Holtby’s three-game winning streak ended with the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime loss at the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday, but captain Alex Ovechkin called Holtby the best player on the ice. Holtby had to work hard for nearly every one of his 36 saves against the Oilers, who are led by the dangerous duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
“[Holtby] kept us in the game with saves on a number of odd-man rushes,” Reirden said.
Holtby has faced adversity and slumps before, and he has learned from each one. After his rough outing against Colorado on Oct. 14, Holtby said he needed to “take a deep breath and go out and play,” and that “in a couple months, you won’t remember this conversation.”
“Eighty-two games is a long time, and especially at the start of the season, things get magnified a little bit more than if that same stretch happened in January,” Holtby said. “It probably wouldn’t even be a conversation; no one would talk about it. You learn from experience that way, that part of staying on the same level of not getting too high or too low is recognizing a situation for what it is and keep on grinding away.”
On Thursday, Holtby made several stellar stops on McDavid, who got behind the defense repeatedly in the third period. McDavid’s skill was obvious as he made a stunning one-on-one move to get past defenseman Nick Jensen six minutes into the third period, but his shot hit the crossbar. Jensen did not reenter the game until almost five minutes remained in the third period, and he took just three more shifts.
“I think that there was a number of bad reads, and you have to hold players accountable and have them miss a shift or two to help them understand and learn lessons," Reirden said. “We will continue to do that and try to improve so this can stop occurring and we can stop letting teams back in the game.”
Holtby faced 14 shots in both the second and third, with the latter period proving to be the most challenging. Holtby held the Oilers scoreless in the second, but McDavid, who had no shot attempts through 40 minutes, took over in the third. He finished with the game-tying goal and two primary assists.
Holtby faced odd-man rushes on both of Draistl’s goals, including his overtime winner 1:18 into the extra period, but was stout otherwise. Samsonov was slated to start Friday at the Vancouver Canucks, but the Capitals remain clear on their hierarchy in goal.
“I’ve never been worried about [Holtby], and I certainly was not worried about him this year like I’ve heard some rumblings about,” defenseman John Carlson said. “He’s kept us in games his whole career.”
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