Goaltender Braden Holtby didn’t face a large number of quality chances as he backstopped the Washington Capitals to their most dominating win of the season, over the Florida Panthers on Saturday night.
He made key stops at critical junctures early in the game, though, preventing potential setbacks and serving as a calming, confident anchor as the Capitals charged forward en route to the 5-0 win.
“He was talking back there, he was letting guys know where he wanted them on the ice, letting guys know what he expected out of them,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “He made big saves and very timely saves, which is what we haven’t got so far this season.”
It’s also what the Capitals will require on a consistent basis from both Holtby and Michal Neuvirth going forward as they try to climb out of last place in the NHL during this shortened 48-game season.
“That’s what we need in the first period, a couple of big saves for us,” Mathieu Perreault said. “And this is what we’ve been looking for [out of the] goalie and hopefully we get more of that.”
A day before Holtby recorded 27 saves for his fourth career shutout, General Manager George McPhee singled out inconsistent goaltending as one of the problems he believed was preventing the Capitals from getting on track early this season.
Coach Adam Oates added that just like the rest of the team, both netminders were trying to work their way out of a funk. “They go in slumps, too, like everybody else,” Oates said. “It’s just more magnified at times.”
Just as McPhee wants to see improvement from the goaltenders, he expressed his confidence in both Holtby, 23, and Neuvirth, 24. The Capitals took care not to rush either of the home-grown netminders, bringing both up through their American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, to make sure they had ample starting time to hone their skills.
At this stage, however, it’s up to them to establish the consistency that the Capitals rely on.
“Neuvirth is a good, solid goaltender. Holtby played really well in the playoffs. It’s time for these two guys to play. Give them lots of games and see how they do,” McPhee said Friday. “We think we’ve done a real good job of developing them. They’ve had their time in Hershey. There is upside there with these goaltenders. But they can both play better and they know it.”
Through five starts, Holtby (2-4-0) has a 3.87 goals against average and an .879 save percentage while Neuvirth (1-4-1) has a 3.05 goals against average and an .889 save percentage in his seven starts.
Despite the unattractive numbers, Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior said he’s been pleased with Holtby’s and Neuvirth’s mechanics and overall confidence heading into Tuesday’s rematch at Florida. Their play is technically sound in Prior’s eyes — they’re playing shots properly and simply need to stay the course.
“You just got to fight through this,” Neuvirth said. “You’ve got to go through tough times sometimes and you just got to fight through it.”
Prior has been critical of only two goals that the duo has given up: the Pascal Dupuis goal Neuvirth allowed in Pittsburgh that got him yanked from Thursday’s loss — a decision Prior supported and called “justified” — and the first Holtby gave up in the season opener against Tampa Bay by misreading the play.
“We’ve had no issues. They both feel very good about where their game’s at, as do I,” said Prior, who added that Holtby’s statistics don’t reflect his play. “I said to him, ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a goalie with this lousy of a goals against average and been totally happy with the guy,’ and I am. . . . That’s life. It doesn’t always deal you a nice hand to play.”
While no one expects either goaltender to roll a shutout every night as Holtby did against the Panthers, the Capitals need more outings with timely, momentum-building saves. Because as pressure increases for the team to find its way out of the league’s basement and back into the playoff picture, the spotlight shines even brighter on the young goaltenders.
“It was hard because throughout the first few games of the year, it wasn’t as much of a struggle as we thought on the scoreboard,” Holtby said. “We weren’t making huge mistakes, and we knew it would come around sooner or later, and we’ve got to keep rolling with it.”