Braden Holtby was going to make a name for himself in the Capitals’ first-round playoff series against Boston, one way or another. What would that name be? Would he be the rookie thrust into the goal mouth and greatness? Or would he be the promising youngster broken by the pressure of playing for the most snake-bit team in recent NHL playoff history?
After four games, it’s certain he won’t be the latter. A sellout Verizon Center crowd chanted his name as Washington took a 2-1 victory in Game 4 on Thursday night, guaranteeing he’s much more likely to wind up a hero than a goat.
“He stood tall and kicked out a lot of rubber tonight,” said Coach Dale Hunter in inimitable hockey-speak.
The Bruins threw all the rubber they had at Holtby — 45 shots — plus what seemed like assorted sticks, gloves and bad vibes — and the rookie held firm, allowing just one shot by Bruins center Rich Peverley to dribble between his pads. As Peverley advanced, Holtby looked so abandoned you expected to hear a Sarah McLachlan song playing in the background, yet he blamed himself: “I wasn’t patient.”
Holtby has started all four of Washington’s playoff games this season; all four have been decided by one goal. “Nerves of steel” would seem to be more welcome than patience when you’ve faced 148 shots in four games. Holtby, 22, welcomes the onslaught.
“Most goalies do,” he said. “It keeps your head in the game. It’s more fun.”
Holtby’s having all this fun because of injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. On another team, Holtby probably wouldn’t be a No. 3 goalie, and chances are he won’t be one on this team next year, either. But with this series even again, there’s no reason to think about next year yet.
Not when this year is still so interesting. After Monday’s chippy Game 3, the Capitals and Bruins had two days to yammer at each other via the media, each about its own innocence and the dirty play of the other. The chatter followed the suspension of Caps center Nicklas Backstrom for a cross-check at the end of Game 3.
Hunter accused the Bruins of head-hunting, with Backstrom’s head being the most highly sought. Boston Coach Claude Julien replied: “I don’t know any coach that would tell his team to go after somebody’s head. It’s ludicrous. It’s ridiculous. Okay?” (Julien apparently doesn’t follow the NFL until the Bruins’ season is over.) There were incidents and accidents, there were hints and allegations.
When all the expended carbon dioxide had settled, Capitals fans went to a fight and a hockey game broke out. Oh, there was pushing and shoving and tripping, oh my — it’s hockey, not a cotillion — but there was none of the dirty play that has threatened to turn other first-round series into something resembling the brawl between the Natives and Dead Rabbits at the start of “Gangs of New York” if Martin Scorsese had thrown a puck into the bloody snow.
So let the rest of the league audition for Headbangers Ball. Words may hurt, but slamming a guy’s face into the glass or coming off both skates to take a guy out with your shoulder, that really stings. And all this nonsense is distracting from the game and taking key players off the ice (and putting them on stretchers), which is not the way any series should be decided.
The best shots, therefore, are either a) verbal or b) fired at Holtby and his cohorts, who blocked 26. (They needed to; there were a lot of turnovers, especially early, when it felt like the puck couldn’t escape Washington’s end.) The game was relatively clean; the Bruins were called for three penalties and Alexander Semin scored the game-winner on a power play. Holtby, on the other hand, faced just one Bruins power play.
“He saw everything tonight, that’s for sure,” Peverley said. “I can’t say there are too many shots that he didn’t see. He likes to glove the puck, he likes to hold on to it, so we’ve got to get more bodies in front of him. He’s a good goalie; he likes to catch everything, so I think we just need to get more net presence. Most goalies in the league, if they see it, they can stop it and he’s another example.”
That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but Holtby should take it in the spirit it was intended. In the 2012 NHL playoffs, it’s a vast improvement over getting the back of someone’s hand.
For Tracee Hamilton’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.