PITTSBURGH — When it finally ended, there was no usual ritual for Braden Holtby. After any other goal or near miss or season-extending save he would have lifted his helmet, shot a perfunctory glance at the video screen above center ice, taken a sip from his water bottle, lowered his helmet and have been done with it.
That’s what he did after Jay Beagle had flung his body in front of the net minutes before to give the Washington Capitals a few more breaths of overtime in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s what he did when Washington had surrendered two Pittsburgh power-play goals in 33 seconds halfway through the second period. It’s what he had done all season, as he played his way to leading contender for the Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL’s top goaltender.
Now, Holtby lay spread eagle in front of his own crease, motionless for a few moments before dragging himself up off the ice as Consol Energy Center exploded to celebrate Pittsburgh’s series-clinching 4-3 overtime win. Nick Bonino, having punched in the series-clinching goal, had finally cracked Washington’s goaltender, the unflappable backbone with the talent that had the Capitals believing this was their championship year.
Holtby faced 42 shots. Ultimately, he said it was the Penguins’ three goals in the first two periods gave the home team an insurmountable advantage.
“We’ve been doing that all year,” Holtby said of the team’s slow start, “and it just kind of bit us tonight that we spotted them three goals. The first one is obviously my fault, we just weren’t prepared enough at the start to give us the best chance at winning.
“We didn’t really play good enough for long enough to give ourselves a chance.”
Holtby took responsibility for Pittsburgh’s first goal, Phil Kessel’s slap shot from the left faceoff circle 5 minutes 41 seconds into the game. But all night the goaltender was in part handcuffed by an incomplete defense and yet another defensive gaffe from the Capitals in the form of a Brooks Orpik penalty.
Orpik, back from a three-game suspension, was called for a pair of two-minute penalties in the second period, a double minor for high sticking Patric Hornqvist. The Penguins scored their two power-play goals while Orpik was off the ice, a costly penalty that recalled his Game 2 hit on Olli Maatta that led to his initial suspension.
Washington’s blue line and penalty kill unit was also without Karl Alzner for the majority of the game. The veteran defenseman, who had anchored the Capitals stellar penalty kill and played more shorthanded time (14:18) than anyone other than Matt Niskanen all series, was stapled to the bench after taking the heel of Sidney Crosby’s stick to the toe of his left skate in the first period.
“I think if you ask most guys on our team, if there’s one guy we can’t lose, it’s him,” Holtby said of Alzner. “He’s our best penalty killer every time, and that showed obviously. They got a couple power play goals. It’s tough, but we battled through it to give ourselves a chance. But that played a big part of the game.”