At the tail end of a boomingly loud night at the home rink, the officials kept replaying a review of a possible New York Rangers goal. But there was one problem. They couldn’t see the puck because Braden Holtby’s sleight of hand — and stick, glove and pad — had obscured whether it had crossed the line.
A few minutes later, the throaty legions began howling, “HOLT-BEE!! HOLT-BEE!!” It carried through the Verizon Center stands, and the Stanley Cup playoffs, which seemed a galaxy away from Washington during the dead of winter, arrived with a resounding 3-1 victory in Game 1 of this Capitals-Rangers rematch.
After 66 shots, 73 hits, all the bone-rattling checks and rocket wristers, it still came down to this: The Caps solved King Henry, and the Rangers couldn’t rattle Prince “Holts.”
Holtby, 23, was better than Henrik Lundqvist, 31, probably the best goalie in hockey the past two years, who gave up two goals in less than a minute in a second-period meltdown for the Rangers.
“He was phenomenal,” Troy Brouwer said of Holtby, who stopped 35 of 36 shots and throttled an offense that had been piling on goals the last few weeks of the season. “He had some big saves. We kind of hung him out to dry a couple of times. But even the play at the end, where he wouldn’t let it squeak by, that was a huge play.”
Holtby and the Caps’ night was a microcosm of their worst-to-winning-again season. They peppered Lundqvist with shots early, outshooting the Rangers 12-1 at one juncture. But nothing got through.
Then Rangers winger Carl Hagelin beat Holtby with a beautiful wrap-around goal at the end of a first period the Caps fairly dominated.
But the Caps’ kept going, pushing through the rough spots, finding their rhythm and turning the game with a five-on-three penalty kill 14 minutes into the second period that made the arena pulsate. Birthday boy Jason Chimera, 34 years young Thursday — can we call him a Ranger killer, given that six of his eight playoff goals have come against the Blueshirts? – finished the scoring. From there, Holtby was brilliant, adding some panache and flourish with almost every glove save.
Holtby has a razor-thin margin for error in this series not because of who is playing in front of him and not because of his own weaknesses; he allowed barely more than two goals per game against the Rangers in last year’s taut, seven-game, second-round thriller.
No, it’s the guy across the ice that makes him have to be so good. If the Caps learned anything from the last four postseasons that included the Rangers, they learned they can’t win if they don’t get to Hank.
No other goaltender has won 30 games in his first seven seasons. Not Ken Dryden. Not Patrick Roy. Not Martin Brodeur. But Lundqvist has, and at times he has bedeviled the Capitals.
Lundqvist gave up fewer than two goals a game a year ago against Washington. They came into Game 1 just 1-for-10 on power-play chances against Lundqvist this season and were 0-for-2 early on.
But then Alex Ovechkin broke through with a rebound to knot the score. And then the floodgates opened — two goals in 46 seconds. The building reverberated with an ear-splitting roar.
Holtby didn’t just have some goal support afterward; he had Steve Oleksy taking a point-blank slap shot off his right cheek with 2 minutes 48 seconds left in the second period on a penalty kill — a shot that left the rookie defenseman bloodied yet unbowed.
In the locker room afterward, he stood beside Holtby, taking questions with a black eye, still-healing cuts from a fight a few weeks ago and blood still trickling from the wound.
“Ninety percent of the time I look like I got hit by a car,” he said. “The other 10 percent is the offseason.”
That’s the kind of perseverance and grit needed in front of the goalie, who associate goalie coach Olaf Kolzig said has an “edge a lot of people don’t see.”
“He’s actually not quirky like so many of us; you can have a conversation with the guy,” Kolzig said. “He was good tonight. But then in this series he has to be.”
Holtby seems unfazed by any notion that he has to live up to Lundqvist’s resume, saying, “We all were young at some point, you know.”
He’s not merely the Capitals’ best defense against however Lundqvist can contort his body the next two weeks; Holtby is the guy who finally fills the full-time spot after Olie the Goalie left in 2008.
They have tried to patch holes with Cristobal Huet, Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov, Tomas Vokoun and others. But they’ve all been placeholders for a kid who has the confidence and the talent to stick around and be the full-time guy the way Kolzig was for so long.
If you thought finding a way into the postseason was a magic act, try being brought here as a third-stringer a year ago and finding yourself concealing a puck against the Rangers in the final minutes of Game 1 of the first round.
That’s real wizardry, the kind Holtby is going to need for at least another three to five games against one of the most formidable counterparts he will ever face.
If Holts can keep it up and play as well as or better than Hank, getting past the Rangers will be a lot more plausible this time around.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.