There was plenty for the Washington Capitals to be happy about in the aftermath of Thursday afternoon’s Winter Classic. For starters, they won a taut game against a very good Chicago Blackhawks team, 3-2, on Troy Brouwer’s goal with less than 13 seconds to play.
The sun — a major pregame concern — proved to be an issue in the first period but no one got hurt and the game wasn’t delayed. The weather was cold, hockey cold, but not frigid. The atmosphere — even though the NHL failed to have someone sing “O Canada,” which should be sung at every hockey game — was spectacular.
The day was full of stars. The event itself again took center stage even though the league jumped the shark a year ago by playing six so-called “Stadium Series” games. In spite of that and the fact that this was the seventh Winter Classic, the notion of the sport going back to its roots has managed to retain its charm — especially on New Year’s Day when jock-world needs a break from meaningless bowl games before the real ones finally begin.
Brouwer, Alex Ovechkin and Eric Fehr — the three goal scorers for Washington — drew plenty of postgame praise. But inside the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, which the Caps called home on Thursday, virtually every member of the team talked about the importance of goalie Braden Holtby, who made 33 saves, many with the score tied at 2 and the Blackhawks pressing. Holtby wasn’t chosen as one of the game’s three stars. His teammates respectfully disagreed.
“The main reason for our record the last five weeks is Holts,” said Brooks Laich. “He’s been a stud, definitely at another level. He just has so much compete in him.
“When he’s playing like this, he’s our leader on the back end of the ice and it makes the game a lot easier for the rest of us.”
Holtby has started 14 straight games and 19 of the past 20. The team is 12-3-4 in those games. In December, he had the highest save percentage in the NHL. A year after struggling throughout the season after being told by the coaching staff to change his technical style, Holtby again looks like the goalie who carried the Caps to a first-round upset of the Boston Bruins three years ago: confident, quick, very difficult to beat except off a screen or a rebound.
Of course Holtby doesn’t want to make a big deal about his hot streak. Like any athlete who is going well, he doesn’t want to acknowledge how well for fear the magic will disappear.
“It’s just how hockey works,” Holtby said, stashing gear in front of his locker in a room packed with sponsors and league officials and (it seemed) about half of the 42,830 who bought tickets. “It’s a fine line in the game and in goaltending.
“I actually had some games early in the season where I played better than I played in December, but I’m definitely feeling confident right now. We’re all confident because we’re all playing well.”
Chicken and egg: Are the Caps playing better because Holtby’s been better or is Holtby playing better because the guys in front of him are playing better?
“You can’t underestimate how huge he’s been for us,” Jay Beagle said.
“When your goalie gets on an absolute roll like he’s been on, it lifts the whole team.”
Defenseman Matt Niskanen agreed. “It changes the way you play,” he said. “You can be more aggressive, you can attack shooters more. You don’t have to block everything which means you can play better positionally.
“It’s a lot of things — all of them good.”
Holtby had no chance to stop Patrick Sharp’s goal late in the first period that cut the Caps’ margin to 2-1. The sun was still a factor at that point and Holtby was in the shadows, Sharp in the sun. “No excuses, but I didn’t even see the release much less the puck,” Holtby said, smiling. “That first period . . . ” He paused and shrugged. “We all got over it.”
The last two periods, with the entire ice surface in shadows, was more about hockey than hoping not to catch a puck coming out of the glare in the mouth. Once Brandon Saad tied the score early in the second period, the game became a duel of the two goalies: Corey Crawford, who was the goalie when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup two years ago, and Holtby. Crawford was good. Holtby was better.
Holtby has put in hours and hours working with new goalie coach Mitch Korn and clearly feels reborn — at age 25 — in goal again.
“It’s coming along,” he said of the technical changes. “It gets a little better each day. It’s all really a matter of reps.”
Holtby is getting plenty of reps right now because the schedule has included only one back-to-back since his string began and because he’s too hot to sit down. Korn and Coach Barry Trotz will have to be careful to make certain Holtby is fresh come spring when the games will matter most.
“If you want to go deep or win in the playoffs your goalie has to be your best player or at the very least close to it,” Niskanen said. “You can hide a goalie for a round — maybe — but that’s about it. Playing like this, Holts is a goalie who can carry a team deep.”
It’s a very long way from a day of hype and fun to the heat — literal and figurative — of June.
But the Caps are playing well enough right now that, a year after missing the playoffs entirely, it’s not a completely outrageous thought. Because their most important player — the one who wears a mask — is playing superb hockey.
The national TV audience may not have noticed on Thursday. The men he shares a locker room with did — again.
For more by John Feinstein, visit www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
More on the Winter Classic:
Dan Steinberg: For once, no blow to cushion for D.C. fans