After an up-and-down regular season and an untimely three-game slide in these Eastern Conference finals leading into Game 6, Holtby discarded all 24 shots the Lightning tossed his way in the Capitals’ season-extending victory. So before heading to Tampa for Wednesday’s Game 7, the Capitals lined up in front of Holtby’s net and took turns congratulating the anchor of their stingy defensive effort. Tom Wilson offered a head butt. John Carlson gave Holtby a double high-five followed by a bear hug. Jay Beagle pressed his helmet against Holtby’s mask before smacking him hard on the back.
And when the ice finally cleared Holtby was the last player on it, gliding toward the bench for a postgame interview, soaking in a booming chant of his last name.
He picked the perfect night for his first shutout of the season.
“The only reason it’s good is you know you won,” Holtby said of the first shutout, which came after 54 regular season starts and 12 more in the playoffs. “Aside from that it’s just another statistic for you guys, I guess. You can write about it. But for us, it’s just that W. That’s all that matters.”
The timing was pretty important, too.
Holtby started the postseason in an unfamiliar role: backing up Philipp Grubauer, watching from the bench, waiting for another opportunity should the Capitals need him. That happened in Game 3 of the Capitals’ first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Holtby’s next 12 games — a 10-2 record, .928 save percentage and 2.04 goals against average — reestablished him as the unquestioned starter in net.
Then he slipped again in three losses leading into Monday, allowing 3.49 goals per game and posting an .844 save percentage. Those were, uncoincidentally, the same three losses that pushed the Capitals to the brink of elimination after jumping ahead 2-0 in this series. They needed a sharp turnaround from their goaltender in Game 6. Holtby delivered one.
“He’s been here four years [under the current coaching staff], and Braden has grown and Braden has been the backbone of our hockey club,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said after the win. “You can’t go anywhere without goaltending, and he’s been solid and we’re fortunate that we’ve had two really good goaltenders, in him and [Grubauer], and it allows you to have success.
“Braden is a true pro. He works at his game, he finds ways to make a difference, and he does.”
The Lightning’s first solid scoring opportunity came in the second period, when J.T. Miller and Anthony Cirelli had a two-on-one with Alex Ovechkin scrambling into the defensive zone. Ovechkin dove to block Miller’s pass, but it snuck under his body, leaving Holtby alone with Cirelli in front. Holtby looked beaten glove side until he touched his left pad to the far post, and Cirelli’s shot hit that pad before bouncing away from danger.
At the start of the third, with the Capitals holding a slim one-goal advantage, Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov got a pass on the left wing without a Capitals defensemen nearby. He wound up for a slap shot that whizzed toward the right side of the net before Holtby snatched it out of the air. Holtby then relaxed, his right elbow leaning against the crossbar, and only gave up the puck when a referee skated into the crease and reached out an empty hand.
Four minutes later, Ondrej Palat had a clean look from the right slot and Holtby caught that, too, falling onto his butt as the crowd started shouting his name.
Palat’s shot had a chance of going wide. So did Kucherov’s before it. But Holtby, with the season on the line, had no interest in taking any chances at all.
“That’s Holts. He’s been like that since day one here,” Capitals winger Chandler Stephenson said. “We have all the trust in the world in him, and we know he’s going to stop them when he need him to.”