ANAHEIM, Calif. — Braden Holtby stood in the tunnel alone, apparently needing a few minutes before he joined his teammates on the bench. He was folded over, forearms on his goaltending pads, frozen in that same position and mostly obscured from view of most fans at Honda Center.
Then he stood up straight, put a baseball cap on his head and took a seat. The routine has become excruciatingly familiar for the Washington Capitals goaltender, pulled from a game early three times in his past six starts. This one seemed to sting most with Holtby visibly frustrated as he got back to the bench and went to the locker room. He had allowed three goals on Anaheim’s first nine shots, putting the Capitals in an early hole in what was ultimately a 4-0 loss.
The defeat continued a rough stretch for Holtby. He was 2-5-2 in February with an .873 save percentage while allowing 4.00 goals per game. He endured a career-worst six-game losing streak before making 27 saves in Saturday night’s 5-2 Stadium Series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. It seemed like that game on the big stage could be the turning point Holtby has so desperately needed. Entering Tuesday night’s game, Holtby had a .908 save percentage on the season with a 3.00 goals against average.
It hasn’t helped Holtby that Washington’s defense has allowed more shots per game along with more high-danger scoring chances. But while Holtby has struggled, No. 2 goaltender Philipp Grubauer has been playing behind the same team and has a .944 save percentage and 1.50 goals against average since late November. On Tuesday night, he had to make just eight saves in relief with the Ducks’ fourth goal an empty-net tally.
The Capitals had hoped the Stadium Series win would be a spark before their three-game California swing. The play of Washington’s defense in that game especially, outshooting Toronto as the Capitals spent most of the night in the Maple Leafs’ end, was an encouraging sign after the team had allowed 3.57 goals per game in February. Entering Tuesday night’s contest in Anaheim, the Capitals had an opportunity to string together their first three-game win streak since the first week of the calendar year.
But Washington found itself on the ropes from the game’s first shift. Forward Tom Wilson was called for interference after just 36 seconds, and Anaheim’s Adam Henrique scored on the Ducks’ first shot of the game, snapping a puck over Holtby’s glove from the slot. Then with a cluster of bodies jockeying for position in front of Holtby, Hampus Lindholm’s point shot deflected off Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny for a 2-0 Ducks lead 13:15 into the game.
After Washington failed to get a shot off on a four-on-two rush, Anaheim’s Rickard Rakell beat Holtby glove side with a clean shot from the left faceoff circle to make it a 3-0 game less than six minutes into the second period. That’s when Coach Barry Trotz turned to Grubauer, yanking Holtby for the fourth time since the start of February.
Grubauer tapped Holtby’s pads with his stick as the two skated past each other to swap spots. Capitals players extended their sticks to give encouraging pats to Holtby as he skated by them and then walked straight down the tunnel to the locker room. In the other net, Ducks goaltender John Gibson made 36 saves, denying Washington on three power plays. Through two periods, the Capitals’ fourth line didn’t register a single shot attempt as the team was shutout.
A year ago, the Capitals lost all three games of this California swing. The team still went on to finish with the league’s best regular-season record, but Washington may not have as much wiggle room this year. The Capitals have a one-point lead for first in the Metropolitan Division, but just two points separate the top three teams and Washington has just a five-point edge on the first wild-card team.