With seven minutes remaining in the first period of Washington’s Saturday night game in Calgary, Braden Holtby had already faced 14 shots, and had already surrendered three goals. At that point, Adam Oates, presumably “looking for a spark”, pulled Holtby in favor of backup goalie, Michael Neuvirth. Holtby was livid as he arrived at the Caps’ bench, admonishing the players (and coaches?) for their abject failure to execute in the defensive zone.
Now, Holtby is definitely a work in progress. He can be absolutely brilliant for periods—and even games—at a time, and he can also give up some pretty questionable, and untimely goals. But there was nothing questionable about the three goals that he allowed on Saturday night: The players in front of him simply hung him out to dry.
Whether or not these mid-game goalie changes do anything to alter the momentum is up for debate. What isn’t, however, is that these moves place a disproportionate share of the blame on one person: The goalie that was pulled. Braden Holtby deserved better than this.
What about Mike Green and John Carlson, who, despite their reputations as “puck moving defenseman” appear incapable of making an outlet pass? What about Alex Ovechkin, whose offensive resurgence has done nothing to curb the “glide-aimlessly-in-circles” strategy that he frequently employs in the defensive end? And what about Calle Johansson and Adam Oates who, like their predecessors Dale Hunter and Bruce Boudreau, have yet to strike a balance between potent offense, and responsible defense?
Adam Oates preaches an aggressive system, one that is meant to generate neutral zone turnovers, and allow the skill players to push the pace offensively. It’s a system that is philosophically sound, but it does not work if all of the components are not in place: talent, speed, and accountability. The Caps have the talent, and they have the speed. What they lack—and what they have often lacked for the last five years—is the accountability, particularly from their top players.
Braden Holtby had every right to be upset on Saturday night. It’s one thing for a team to have an off night; even the best get out of sync occasionally. But this wasn’t a team out of sync, this was just a lazy, unfocused effort. And after 11 games, it’s become clear that Saturday was no anomaly: This team has a serious problem.
In order to progress, Adam Oates needs to demand more of his players. And if they don’t deliver, there need to be consequences, and not just for the goalie.