Braden Holtby is not the reason the Washington Capitals lost three straight games to turn an advantage into a crisis. But they just might need him to be the primary reason they win the next two.
Go through the Capitals’ 3-2 loss in Game 5 of these Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning — the loss that puts them one game away from summer — and there’s not really a goal that’s his fault. Those goals, they were all complex — Matt Niskanen beaten to one puck, Dmitry Orlov falling (or getting tripped) on another, a bouncing puck fluttering past over the goal line. Break down the film, and there’s blame to go around.
Here’s the thing, though: The Capitals, at this point, need a hero. They may need more than one. And being a hero would mean Holtby somehow got his pad on Cedric Paquette’s goal in Saturday’s opening minute, or found a way to get his blocker on Ondrej Palat’s shot later in the first, or managed to remain on his feet and block the floating puck that went off Ryan Callahan’s glove and into the net.
Unreasonable asks? Doesn’t matter. It’s time to ask something unreasonable.
The Capitals reached the conference finals for the first time in 20 years for a gazillion reasons, but foremost among them was that Holtby outplayed Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky in the first round and then outplayed Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray in the second. They took the first two games of this series on the road because they played perhaps their two most complete games of the season, but part of that was because Holtby stood there as their backbone. The goals he did give up were understandable — three on the power play — and the Capitals had more than enough to counter.
Now, over the entirety of the series, the better goalie has been Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. Holtby’s play?
“It’s been fine,” Washington Coach Barry Trotz said. “We have to get him a little more help.”
End of evaluation.
Holtby has been through these things before, and he is nothing if not analytical. In the minutes after each game, he sits at his locker stall with Scott Murray, Washington’s first-year goaltender coach. The autopsy of each strike begins immediately, with nothing considered minutia.
But Holtby also knows the overarching themes for these Capitals. This is his 12th playoff series as Washington’s primary goaltender. So cue up those old emotions.
“We don’t like to make it easy on ourselves very often,” Holtby said Saturday night. “I think we’re pretty comfortable in the uncomfortable situations, which has been a good characteristic of our group. Now it’s just using all that past adversity and past challenges of overcoming it to your advantage.”
There’s psychology in there. Strip it away, and here’s a solution: Make a save no one expects you to make.
Holtby has that ability. He has done it this spring. Two seasons ago, he won the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the best regular season goaltender, and was the runner-up last year. When he was benched in favor of Philipp Grubauer to start these playoffs, he told Trotz he understood, but when he was reinserted, he would stop the puck. His first start of this postseason came in Game 3 against Columbus, and over the next 12 games he went 10-2 with a .928 save percentage and a 2.04 goals against average. He was Washington’s MVP in the first two rounds. It wasn’t debatable.
That stretch has ended. In the three Washington losses that have flipped this series, Holtby has allowed 3.49 goals per game and posted an .844 save percentage.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story. But those numbers won’t win a series, or even one game Monday night.
Let’s be clear: Holtby wasn’t responsible for the neutral-zone turnovers that led to Tampa Bay’s first two goals, nor can he be expected to see through Niskanen’s body to get an eye on the last one. You didn’t walk away from Alex Killorn’s game-winner in Game 4 at Capital One Arena thinking, “There’s a softy.” Still, there was a chance — on any of them — for something extraordinary.
Meanwhile, Vasilevskiy, so vulnerable in the first two losses, has stiffened. In a series opener that feels forever ago, he allowed four goals in the opening 40 minutes — and was yanked. Two nights later, he let in six goals.
He is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, and in those two games, the Capitals made him look overmatched. Now, he is the one making the saves that turn into highlights. More importantly, he is making the saves that win games — and series.
“He’s certainly raised his game,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson told reporters Sunday.
He is, though, also getting help. The Capitals, to some degree, have made it easy on Vasilevskiy. Think about their first goal Saturday night. How did it come about? Evgeny Kuznetsov tipped a Niskanen shot. Vasilevskiy had no chance.
That hasn’t happened often enough. Hot goalies can be created by the quality of the other team’s looks. For three games, the Capitals haven’t fought to get to the difficult spots in front of the net, haven’t put big bodies in front of Vasilevskiy to block his view. Of the 28 saves he made Saturday night, how many were true tests, absolute robberies?
“Just that one extra guy here and there is a big difference for a goalie,” Carlson said. “I think we got to bring that extra guy in to possibly be a rebound option [or a] pass option, just to make him think a little bit, make him guess a little bit.”
When the Capitals analyzed the most important difference in their brutal seven-game loss to Pittsburgh in last year’s second round, the conclusion was rather simple: Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was better than Holtby. It wasn’t a massive difference. But it was there.
If the Capitals go down to Tampa, the conclusion may be exactly the same. Pick apart the stupid penalties or first-shift-of-the-period letdowns, all factors for sure. But right now, Tampa’s goalie is trending one way and Washington’s is, in the words of its coach, “fine.”
One more loss means the season. To extend it, Braden Holtby will have to be better than “fine.” He will have to be the best version of himself. If he is on Monday, get your innards ready for a Game 7 on Wednesday.