NASHVILLE — Every time the puck was on Braden Holtby’s stick, he would hear the screams from the fans. He couldn’t understand what they were saying, so he figured they just didn’t want to see a goaltender handle the puck. Holtby wanted to oblige, so he would dish it quickly, admittedly panicking a few times.
The Bridgestone Arena fans wanted the opposite, pleading with Holtby to “shoot it,” because a goalie goal was the only thing the NHL All-Star Game tournament was missing. The event’s new three-on-three format was a hit with both players and fans, an exciting style of hockey that actually resembled what three-on-three play looks like in overtime periods of regular season games.
The Washington Capitals’ representatives — Holtby, forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov and Coach Barry Trotz — did their part to give the fans the show they wanted and enjoyed themselves in the process. In a rare occurrence for Capitals players this season, they were on a losing team; the Metropolitan Division fell to the Atlantic Division, 4-3, in the semifinal round of the tournament, which divided the league’s all-stars into four teams by division.
Holtby made eight saves and allowed two goals. Kuznetsov scored a goal, and Backstrom had two shots on goal. The Pacific Division beat the Atlantic, 1-0, in the final round after advancing past the Central Division, 9-6, in the semifinals. John Scott, the former Arizona Coyotes enforcer who won a controversial fan vote to select the Pacific Division captain before he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens, scored two goals and was named the event’s MVP.
Asked where the loss ranks in his career, the typically stoic Holtby laughed, needing a few seconds to collect himself.
“I mean, a loss is a loss,” Holtby said while struggling to keep a straight face. “It’s hard to swallow.”
The Capitals’ all-star representatives now return to Washington and transition back to games that count with fans who have higher expectations than just seeing a goalie take a shot on goal. Their other teammates got rest during the all-star break, so Trotz said Holtby, Backstrom and Kuznetsov will have Monday’s practice off.
“It’s not really physically demanding in the days,” Trotz said, “but you’re pulled in a lot of directions and it can be mentally draining.”
Because Holtby won’t be practicing on Monday, backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer will "probably” start against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday, Trotz said.
The coach of the Metropolitan Division team, Trotz gave Holtby the start in the All-Star Game. He formed his trio combinations thoughtfully, symbolically starting three players who are captains of their respective teams — Islanders forward John Tavares, Flyers forward Claude Giroux and Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. He had Penguins teammates Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang together with Columbus’s Brandon Saad, a Pittsburgh native.
With Kuznetsov and Backstrom both being centers, Trotz got a rare chance to see them play together, placing them in a unit with Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk. Holtby said he wanted to see Kuznetsov get the puck more so he could “show the world what he can do.” Kuznetsov said he would have liked to play another period beyond the two 10-minute periods the Metropolitan Division team got in the semifinals. The new three-on-three format was well-received.
“The biggest thing is that there is no physical element to normal three-on-three in the regular season,” Holtby said. “Guys aren’t hesitant in any way. You can skate, you can shoot, and that’s pretty normal for guys. It ramps up the intensity, I think, and in the future it’s going to get even better.”
In perfect spirit of the All-Star Game, the Metropolitan Division shared a locker room with the Atlantic Division despite having to play against its Eastern Conference counterparts in the first game. Players were competitive, but they also enjoyed each other’s company.
Kuznetsov was happy to get to catch up with Colorado’s Matt Duchene, whom he once played against at the world junior championships. Backstrom got to experience his first All-Star Game, which Trotz figured was “fulfilling” for him after he was passed over for his first eight seasons. Holtby said it was hard not to have fun in Nashville.
Trotz got a warm reception in the city where he coached for 17 years. The crowd gave him a standing ovation when he was shown on the video board, and he blew them a kiss in response. Now he returns to his current team and fan base, along with the rest of the Capitals. That won’t be a challenging transition.
“The guys from our team that are here, we just kind of want to get back there and get doing what we’ve been doing,” Holtby said. “This is a weekend that’s very good for the league, for fans, and we know that. That’s why we try to put on a good show, but our focus hasn’t wavered from being back in Washington.”