The Washington Capitals’ 1-0 win Wednesday night over the Philadelphia Flyers was about the flickering embers of a historic run. It was about a bearded, mild-mannered goaltender punching fatigue in the face. It was about a low-scoring Capitals victory, once rare, becoming ordinary, anchored by a backstop pitching his third shutout since mid-December.
Braden Holtby could plainly glimpse the end of the streak steamrolling toward him, scheduled by his coach for Saturday in Dallas, when backup Justin Peters would play in net for the first time in nearly two months. And yet his 20th consecutive start and franchise-record 26th straight appearance by a goaltender represented Holtby at his pillared best. Teammates believed the stretch had made Holtby stronger, not more fatigued. To argue now would be to attempt the impossible.
“He’s made tougher individual saves this season, but man did he look rock-solid again,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Just really easy for him.”
Holtby made 21 saves to give Washington its first 1-0 shutout since Jan. 11, 2012. He helped kill three Flyers power plays and outdueled Philadelphia’s Rob Zepp (25 saves). He ensured forward Jason Chimera’s first-period circus goal held up. He rescued teammates after turnovers. He made the Capitals labor to find new methods of praise.
“Kind of a broken record really,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “He’s been the backbone to this whole run we’ve been on.”
Long before Holtby took his curtain call as the night’s first star, before he carried the Capitals to their seventh straight win at home and third straight overall, their fourth line — Chimera, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson — provided the only offense needed on their first shift of the night.
After a long sequence of cycling through the offensive zone, the puck skittered toward the blue line, where Niskanen charged, closed the gap and tried to keep possession alive. Niskanen flailed his stick at the puck and whacked it toward the goalmouth. He never saw Chimera move into position.
From behind the net, the left winger gained a step on Mark Streit and, in stride, redirected the puck between his legs, then between Zepp’s and across the goal line. With his arms raised high, wearing a gaping, can-you-believe-it grin, Chimera celebrated his fourth tally of the season and first since Dec. 18.
The Capitals had won 18 of their past 19 games when they scored first, and the lone exception came last Thursday in Philadelphia. There, for the fourth time this season, they lost while shorthanded in overtime, undone by a costly penalty in sudden death, which left Coach Barry Trotz angry with a group he felt had lost its crispness.
Similar frustration returned during the second period, with the Capitals still hemmed on the penalty kill after forward Joel Ward’s offensive-zone interference, so Holtby took over. The goalie has grown accustomed to hearing his name bellowed from the Verizon Center seats, and over the next five minutes the chants only grew louder.
While Washington endured a shots-on-goal drought lasting 15 minutes, Holtby stopped three point-blank chances. The last one, when Claude Giroux pounded a breakaway into Holtby’s chest pads, made Giroux stare into the rafters with disbelief and defenseman John Carlson stick-tap Holtby on the shins, as if to say, “Thanks.” Carlson needed Holtby’s help again moments later when he flubbed a breakout control, but Holtby batted Jakub Voracek’s ensuing shot down with his glove.
“He’s very calm in the net,” Trotz said. “There’s no panic, no extra movement. He’s just very calm. He’s seeing the puck, and he’s made a transformation.”
Opposite Holtby, his counterpart kept the Flyers hanging around. Once Verizon Center whipped itself into a frenzy from Niskanen’s crushing check on forward Scott Laughton, Zepp stiffened.
In the final minute of the second period, a sprawling cross-crease pad save denied forward Eric Fehr at the goalmouth, Zepp’s leg the only thing blocking the Capitals and a two-goal lead.
Once the teams flipped sides, the spotlight stayed on the same end. Defenseman Mike Green lost a puck inside the defensive zone, so Holtby stopped the counterattack. A dump-in caromed hard off the back wall and into the crease, so Holtby smothered it with his glove. When Zepp fled his post, the Capitals withstood a heart attack-inducing sequence of six-on-five as a puck skipped off Fehr’s body and over the net. And when the final buzzer sounded, the celebration line again mobbed Holtby’s perch.