They were blurs from above, streaks of red and white sweaters zipping through the Washington Capitals’ zone, a tornado swirling around the masked maker of calm. As Game 3 of these Eastern Conference semifinals rumbled toward its pulse-rattling end, when Verizon Center converted its nervous energy into deafening roars and the New York Rangers hurled an extra skater into the fray, goaltender Braden Holtby stood alone. His stick became a push broom, clearing pucks from the doorstep. His glove became a flytrap, snaring rebounds from midair. His aura became a salve, the bulletproof presence needed to secure a 1-0 victory.
It was a pinball bounce suited for the arcade machines that fueled the Capitals on Monday night, but amid the chaos of the dying seconds, down a skater after the Rangers emptied their net, their cues came from inside the crease. In the final minute alone, they iced two pucks then won both faceoffs. They clogged shot lanes and blocked four shots, surviving 28 attempts from New York in the third period. They rode Holtby’s 30 saves for their first postseason shutout in exactly two years, which came from the same netminder, by the same score, in the same building against the same division rival.
At one point, Coach Barry Trotz considered calling a timeout for a breather. Then he looked down his bench, trusted his players and let them keep going. The Capitals had learned to thrive in these moments under his guidance, forming an airtight structure to counter six-on-five situations. With a 2-1 series lead at stake, he believed they would figure it out.
“It’s actually organized chaos, if you look at it,” Trotz said. “We just stayed with it.”
And so from the rubble emerged the Capitals, storming off the bench to mob Holtby, bumping helmets and offering hugs. They had held serve at home despite another slow start and getting outshot on goal by eight, earning their fourth straight home playoff win for the first time since 2008-09. They had ensured forward Jay Beagle’s goal, the solution to their bottom-six scoring woes banked off two opposing skates, held up. Wednesday night, they will host Game 4 here, two victories away from eliminating the Presidents’ Trophy winners and advancing into the conference finals.
“I think we were lucky tonight,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We didn’t play our best hockey tonight, but we got away with a win anyway. That’s obviously nice, and we’ll take it any day.”
As would their offensive hero, the snake-bitten forward anchoring a line stuffed with goose eggs. Robbed by bad bounces and thwarted by stellar saves against both the New York Islanders and Rangers, the center for a trio that had scored zero goals during nine playoff games, Beagle settled for the flukiness of a wraparound attempt. He and his linemates — Troy Brouwer and Andre Burakovsky — had insisted their scoring chances were solid and preached against pressing for better looks. Less than eight minutes into a hectic second period, this steadfastness became almost prophetic.
With defenseman Keith Yandle and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist converging to seal off the near post, Beagle slipped the puck into the tight window and hoped for the best. In a stroke of fortune, it banked off Yandle’s skate, then Lundqvist’s, then finally snuck over the line. As he watched the goal unfold, Beagle pumped one fist to the rafters, like he was calling for a trucker’s horn. He welcomed hugs as steam shot down from the video screen. His two shots on goal were Washington’s first and second during the second period but, for only the fourth time in 10 postseason games, the Capitals had nabbed the first lead.
“He got a lucky bounce for sure,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said, “but he deserves it.”
When the Rangers mounted their counter-push after Beagle’s goal, the spotlight turned onto the other end. Holtby had entered Monday ranked first among remaining netminders in playoff save percentage and, as the second period wore on, the chants of his surname grew louder and louder with each stop.
He smothered a puck amid a mad scramble in the crease. He stayed calm as forward Martin St. Louis blocked defenseman John Carlson’s shot inside the Rangers’ blue line then took off on a breakaway, absorbing the puck into his stomach for a stoppage. He denied two more goal-mouth deflections from St. Louis and forward Rick Nash, stonewalling the Rangers with 20 saves through two periods. And once the Capitals successfully killed forward Tom Wilson’s boarding minor early in the third period, their 20th penalty kill in 21 postseason chances, he gloved forward Chris Kreider’s wrister, stifling the threat.
Then, with roughly 80 seconds left, Lundqvist fled his post. The puck stayed glued inside the Capitals’ zone. Chaos broiled. The building thundered. They iced one puck, then another. Organized chaos from Trotz’s perspective, perhaps, but madness throughout.
“Sometimes you don’t even know where the puck is,” Brouwer said. “You’re just swinging at air and hopefully you hit something. It can be a little frantic, but the guys in here, we as a group have good poise.”
Summary: Capitals 1, Rangers 0
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