Barry Svrluga

It’s impossible to think about the impending series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins and not delve into the larger themes, into Sid vs. Ovi and who has what the other wants, into the dark history of the Capitals’ 1-for-10 record against the Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Those issues hang over the series and color it — a deep, dark gray for Washington. For the Capitals to advance to a place this group has never been, they will have to tackle those narratives and drag them to the ground. They’re ever-present.

But Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals have another issue that has dragged them to the ground too often as April has turned to May over the past decade. It has nothing to do with Ovechkin or his chief nemesis, Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh. Yet it’s exactly the kind of element that could put Capital One Arena on edge early in Thursday night’s Game 1.

Watch and then listen if Penguins goalie Matt Murray makes an exceptional save on Ovechkin or any of his Washington teammates. Mark my words: The building will get tense and tight. That kind of play in net, particularly in the playoffs, “It allows you to play free,” according to Washington Coach Barry Trotz.

In the Ovechkin era, the Capitals have not often been afforded to “play free” over the entirety of a series. Those Capitals have played 16 playoff series dating from 2008, including the just-completed comeback against Columbus.

Name one that the Washington goaltender stole from an opponent.

Still thinking? Maybe — maybe — I would grant you the first-round series against Boston in 2012. The man who stole that series had just 18 NHL starts to his credit before the playoffs began yet posted a .940 save percentage and four times limited the Bruins to one goal. The goalie who stole a seven-game matchup with Boston was Braden Holtby.

“Obviously,” Holtby said Wednesday, “it was a pretty memorable series.”

Now it’s up to Holtby to do that again. The Ovechkin-era Caps have turned to Cristobal Huet and Jose Theodore, to Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, to Jaroslav Halak (and we’ll get back to him) and, eventually, to Philipp Grubauer to start this playoff run. Yet it is Holtby who has been the best of that bunch, Holtby who once brought stability to an inherently unstable position in Washington, Holtby who is back in net and Holtby who must steal this series against Pittsburgh.

That last part, maybe it’s an exaggeration. The Penguins will arrive here a banged-up bunch, with key cogs Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin out for at least Game 1. Get equal goaltending, and it’s possible the Caps could beat the Penguins, straight-up. Not that this Washington team is better than last year’s or 2016’s, both teams that went down to Pittsburgh.

But what was the central reason the Capitals couldn’t beat the Penguins in 2017? It wasn’t problems on the power play or the penalty kill. It was that Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury outplayed Holtby. He stopped 67 of 71 shots in the Penguins’ victories in Washington in Games 1 and 2. He shut out the Capitals in Game 7. He was the difference.

Doesn’t that feel like a theme?

Go back to Halak — not when, in something of a panic move, the Capitals traded for him midseason. But in 2010, Halak played in Montreal for the eight-seeded Canadiens, who took on the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals. Washington, famously, took a three-games-to-one series lead. Halak, over the final three games, faced 134 shots. He made 131 saves. I can still picture George McPhee, then the general manager in Washington, hazily muttering, “That Halak.” The Caps lost in seven, a series stolen.

But it wasn’t the only example. In 2012, 2013 and 2015, the Capitals faced the New York Rangers, and facing the New York Rangers since 2006 has meant facing Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. Each of those series went seven games. Lundqvist’s goals against average in those series, respectively: 1.66, 1.65 and 1.65. Goals allowed in the Game 7s: one, zero and one.

Three more series, just about stolen.

So now it’s on Holtby to do something similar, to take the Penguins’ best chances and strangle them. He is capable of just that and not just because six years ago he was the beneficiary of Joel Ward’s overtime game-winner in the seventh game to become a series winner. (Another reminder to the Caps for this round: Don’t be afraid to be a hero.)

No, Holtby is good enough to steal a series on his own. His finishes in the Vezina Trophy voting, acknowledging the league’s best regular season goaltender, the three seasons before this one were fourth, first and second. During that time, he has played more games than any goalie in the NHL.

“He’s a top goalie in the league,” Ovechkin said after Holtby beat Columbus for the fourth straight time Monday night.

It’s worth noting, too, that while Holtby hasn’t swiped a series on his own since that debut against Boston, his Stanley Cup playoff numbers are nice. Yes, they’re just numbers. But here’s the list of goalies, in the history of the playoffs, with a better save percentage than Holtby’s .9318: Tim Thomas (.9326). No one else.

No, it doesn’t give the complete picture, not of the era in which he plays or of the quality of the chances he has faced. Still, it’s a nice place to start.

You could argue that Holtby can’t and won’t win this series by himself, and that’s fine. He is not on an island. Trotz, in fact, wants all his players connected to all three zones: offensive, neutral and defensive. He doesn’t mean just the skaters.

“Part of that is: Is your goaltender connected?” Trotz said. “When you’re connected there . . . it gives your team confidence. It gives you sort of a security blanket that you know that you’re going to get a save.”

Before the puck drops Thursday night, the cameras will fall to Ovechkin and to Crosby, what split-screen NHL is all about. But warming up in the home net will be Braden Holtby, relegated to the bench when these playoffs began, good enough to impact them now that he has returned. For the Capitals to sneak past the Penguins and steal their way into the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 20 years, it says here Braden Holtby is going to have to lead the heist.

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