COLUMBUS, Ohio — The three shots came in a three-second burst — one low, one high and right, another aimed at the far post — and Braden Holtby saved them all.
And as if using his pads, chest and right arm in such a spurt was not enough, the Capitals goaltender finished the sequence by covering the puck with his glove as three players crowded the front of his net and two more broke into a scuffle behind him. This came midway through the second period and was just a small, hectic sliver of Holtby’s performance in a 3-2 victory for Washington over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday night.
Holtby’s 37 saves led to a game-winning goal from Nicklas Backstrom with 42.9 seconds left in the third period. T.J. Oshie collected a rebound off Alex Ovechkin’s shot before sliding a cross-zone pass to Backstrom, who flung the puck into the net for the 200th goal of his career. That kept Holtby’s strong effort from turning into a hollow one and maintained a four-point lead atop the Metropolitan Division for the Capitals (31-17-5) before they face the Blue Jackets again in Washington on Friday.
“At the end of the third there, when we needed him the most, he really stepped up,” Backstrom said of Holtby. “He showed why he’s maybe the best goalie in the league, I think. It’s just the way he is. When you need him the most, that’s when he steps up. You can count on him.”
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz continued to shift his lineup and most notably reunited Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line with Tom Wilson sliding in on the right wing. But the Capitals haven’t had trouble scoring in the past week. They came into the Blue Jackets matchup with seven even-strength goals in their past two games yet lost both in regulation by allowing a total of 11 to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vegas Golden Knights.
That included the six goals Holtby gave up before he was pulled against the Penguins. He did not play against the Golden Knights on Sunday, turning Tuesday into his bounce-back performance.
“It’s something that was instilled in me early. It was one of those lessons my dad taught me,” Holtby said after the win. “Bad games happen, but if you want to be good, you want to be great, you can’t have two in a row. It’s just something I always remembered. In this league, when there are so many games, it’s just that little extra that makes you focus and regroup and kind of get back to your basics.
“It’s one of those things; you just go out there, you work, you battle, and usually you get rewarded for that.”
That wasn’t the case at first as the Blue Jackets extended a possession before David Savard beat Holtby with a shot from the point. That goal came 1:58 into the game and marked the 10th time in 11 games that the Capitals failed to score first. But they had a quick answer this time as defenseman John Carlson scored his eighth goal on a power play three minutes later.
Holtby then made 17 saves in the second period, opening a window for the Capitals’ offense. Washington nudged ahead on a Wilson goal as the winger collected a pass from Ovechkin, cut in front of Sergei Bobrovsky, forced the goaltender into a split and slid the puck through his legs. That was Wilson’s first goal in 12 games, his seventh of the season, and the 13th five-on-five score from the line of him, Backstrom and Ovechkin on the year.
That lead was safe with Holtby until Brandon Dubinsky knocked in a rebound with six minutes left in the third period. That came on the Blue Jackets’ 35th shot on goal. The Capitals goaltender had discarded chance after chance until Dubinsky’s second-chance shot tickled off his glove and into the net.
Now the matchup of Vezina Trophy winners, with Bobrovsky finding a rhythm on the other end of the ice, was knotted, and it looked as if the Capitals could spoil Holtby’s performance as the noise inside Nationwide Center crescendoed.
But then a Blue Jackets power play came and went. Backstrom beat Bobrovsky from the weak side soon after. Holtby discarded one more dangerous scoring opportunity in the final minute, and as the quieted fans filtered toward the exits, the Blue Jackets were out of shots and out of time.
“Braden is so good for us all the time. It’s sometimes hard not to take for granted,” Oshie said. “But that’s just what we’re used to with how consistently good he is, and we definitely didn’t want to leave the building without making sure we matched his effort. He kept us in it from start to finish.”