As Barry Trotz turned the net back over to the goaltender who had been the definition of steady for three-plus years, the Capitals coach’s expectations were fairly straightforward.
“Just a typical Braden Holtby outing is what I’m looking for,” he said before the game.
Holtby hadn’t looked like himself for roughly a month before Trotz ordered a “reset” for his top goaltender, turning to Philipp Grubauer in net for four straight starts while Holtby used the nine days to make some corrections. Friday’s game against the New York Islanders was Holtby’s first start since March 6, and while his teammates gave him an assist by keeping the shot total down, Holtby looked like Holtby again. He made 22 saves in the 6-3 win.
“He looked really confident,” Trotz said.
Said Holtby: “I felt a lot better. Not that I was feeling horrible before, but you get refreshed, you know? It’s like anything, a week off work or a holiday or something, you come back a little refreshed. Obviously, there’s still things to work on, and it’s not a thing that solves problems just like that, but it is one of the tools in the toolbox to try and build my game and our team game moving forward.”
The Capitals have won four in a row, good for first place in the Metropolitan Division with 89 points. But for all of the good that came out of Friday’s game, the team might have also suffered a significant loss. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals’ second-leading scorer with 71 points, awkwardly crashed into the boards at the end of the second period and did not return, suffering what the team called an undisclosed “upper-body” injury. Kuznetsov will be reevaluated Saturday.
The last time Holtby was in net was in a loss at Anaheim, when he allowed three goals on the first nine shots of the game. He was pulled in favor of Grubauer early in the second period, and that marked the third time he’d been yanked from net in six starts. It continued a troubling month for Holtby. Going back to a Feb. 2 game in Pittsburgh, Holtby had a 3-6-2 record with an .872 save percentage and a 3.73 goals against average. His .907 save percentage and a 3.03 goals against average on the season were career-worst numbers.
Holtby seemed to agree that he had to earn his playing time, especially given Grubauer’s strong play. The change in net was always billed as a temporary one, though Trotz said he’s undecided on who will start Sunday’s game in Philadelphia.
“They’re both playing well, so I can’t even answer that right now,” Trotz said. “I do know that we have a number of games this week and whatever way we go — I’ll sit down with the coaches — and whatever way we go, I think they’re both going to get some time this week.”
The Islanders tied the game in the second period with a bar-down power-play goal from star rookie Mathew Barzal. But New York was undisciplined throughout what became a chippy contest, and the Capitals regained the lead less than two minutes later with a Nicklas Backstrom power-play goal. Washington piled it on from there: Matt Niskanen scored, then Alex Chiasson scored, and then Jakub Vrana scored to make it a 5-1 game.
The Islanders scored two goals on two power plays in the last 6:08, when the game was safely in hand. But while those tallies seemed insignificant in the moment, they presented another test for Holtby, especially when Barzal got a breakaway opportunity right after New York’s third goal.
“I had wanted to work on regrouping after goals,” Holtby said. “I didn’t feel like I was doing a good enough job of that. The third goal was a lucky break — he fans on it, and it goes off Nisky and in — and I think that’s one of the things I wanted to regroup quickly and focus on the play. The breakaway came right away, so fortunately I made the right read. That’s what I want to be there for, for the team in those situations. That’s one thing I want to keep getting better at.”
With the Capitals on a power play for most of the first period, Holtby saw just four shots. He’s been a workhorse for Washington under Trotz, starting at least 63 games over the past three seasons, was a Vezina Trophy finalist the past two years and won the award in 2016. While Holtby said physical fatigue wasn’t to blame for his recent struggles, he found a bright side in this “reset.” It marked the longest he’d gone between starts since the 2013-14 season.
“It was good to just clear your mind and step back,” Holtby said before the game. “It makes it a lot better when we had success while that was going on. That makes it easier to focus on regrouping and just working on a few things. A couple days in practice, you’re not worrying about conserving energy. You can really just work through things. It’s something I haven’t had in quite a few years, so there was a positive in it for mentally and physically just to regroup a bit.”
That Holtby’s break coincided with Washington’s improved defensive play helped, too. The Capitals have allowed more than 32 shots per game, the most under Trotz, but the team has tightened up lately. Before Thursday’s game, a 7-3 win at Barclays Center, the Capitals had gone five straight games allowing fewer than 30 shots, a season-best stretch. Through two periods on Friday night, Holtby faced just 13 shots.
But when he was under fire, he looked sharp. After a sequence when he made three saves in three seconds midway through the second period, the crowd responded with a standing ovation, expected in “a typical Braden Holtby outing.”