PITTSBURGH — Braden Holtby’s teammates ran out of ways to praise him for performances like Monday night’s a long time ago. There are only so many ways to gush about how he “stood on his head,” again, or how his sprawling stops literally saved them.
“We’re so happy to have him in the net,” Backstrom said. “He’s our best player every night. I’ve said it before. It’s just impressive to see him.
“To be honest, I haven’t seen him any better than this.”
This run for Holtby has reached stunning levels even for him, and he extended it with arguably his most impressive performance against the Penguins at Consol Energy Center, stopping a season-high 44 shots. Holtby is now 11-0-1 in his last 12 games, at times singlehandedly keeping Washington atop the Metropolitan Division.
On Monday night, when Pittsburgh sent 31 shots on goal through 40 minutes, chances ranged from deflections with traffic in front to point-blank opportunities. His mask came off at one point, and he still sprawled to protect his cage. Holtby has seen more than 33 shots in six out of his last seven starts.
“That was one of the comments after the game, that we’ve got to get the opposing team’s shot count down a bit,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “Teams are good and teams are going to get shots. Holts is a great goaltender, and he’s going to stop a big majority of them, but we can’t lean on him too many times like this.”
The performance was a continuation of Holtby’s third period against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night, when he stopped 15 shots in the final 20 minutes alone, with the action almost exclusively in Washington’s zone. The Capitals average among the fewest shots against per game, but Holtby has been leaned on more recently.
Though his teammates will happily laud Holtby, he still found something to criticize. In his last 12 games, Holtby has a 1.75 goals against average and a .944 save percentage. He’s also the league leader in wins (19) and goals against average (1.90) for the season.
“My rebound control wasn’t very good tonight,” he said. “That’s a thing you can’t get away with for very long. I got away with it tonight, but in the future, that’s something I’m going to have to make sure is better.”
The Capitals built an early two-goal lead on goals by Backstrom and John Carlson, and it took a deflection to get past Holtby with 4 minutes 1 second left in the first period, when Evgeni Malkin redirected Ben Lovejoy’s slap shot through Taylor Chorney’s legs. That had Washington clinging to a one-goal lead, and Holtby didn’t get more support until the third period.
With 8:50 gone in the third, Oshie wrapped around Pittsburgh’s net and saw it mostly empty with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury still by the other post. Oshie also gave the Capitals an insurance goal with a power-play score in the last minute of the game, capping a three-point night.
After a coaching change over the weekend, with Mike Sullivan replacing Mike Johnston, the Penguins seemed determined to overcome their low-scoring woes, setting a season high in shots on goal. Pittsburgh averages just 2.36 goals per game, which is 26th in the league, but the Penguins came out hot on their very first shift, putting three shots on Holtby.
“I don’t know what it is with our starts, but it seems like he gets a big save in the first five minutes pretty often,” Oshie said. “We’ve got to clean that up and be a little bit more responsible with the puck to start games.”
After making 35 saves against the Lightning on Saturday, Holtby said the way he’s been able to breed a new level of consistency this season is by focusing on not allowing more than two goals in any game rather than going for a shutout every single night. The last time he allowed more than two goals was on Nov. 25.
Holtby eventually got a greater cushion Monday, but he didn’t need it.
“When we needed a big save, of course Braden was really good,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said.