The Washington Capitals are no strangers to postseason hockey. However, getting past the second round of the playoffs is a skill they’ve not mastered since their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998.
With arguably the world’s best player in Alex Ovechkin, and certainly the NHL’s current best assist merchant, Nicklas Backstrom, both on the books for almost a decade, one might ask why the Caps don’t enjoy longer runs in the playoffs. The answer is: Their goaltending. Until now, that is. Braden Holtby is on fire, and he’s the main reason the Caps won Tuesday’s thrilling Game 4 against the New York Islanders. With Holtby in goal, the Capitals have a real chance of lifting the Cup this year.
The Capitals have ushered in (and out) a string of goaltenders since they unceremoniously traded the immaculate Olav Kolzig to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2007. All of those goalies, including Jose Theodore and Tomas Vokoun, performed well in spurts but ultimately moved on.
Holtby is one that might have moved on too, but the Capitals organization showed undying faith in their young goalie, and that faith is paying dividends this April. Holtby made 36 saves last night against the Islanders and took a pelting during four penalty kills. He is why the Caps aren’t in a 3-1 hole right now. His consistency, his poise and his improved skill-set this season have combined to produce an outstanding netminder.
Holtby: The Caps’ Top Guy
“What Braden’s done for us all year is win a lot of games,” said Coach Barry Trotz Tuesday after his team evened the series at 2-2. “He’s been a top guy for us all year.”
Holtby played in 73 games in the regular season, which led the NHL for goaltenders. However, he felt sick before Game 1, and that resulted in an uncharacteristic lack-luster performance and a 3-1 loss. He subsequently sat out Game 2, prompting his mother to tweet that it was the first hockey game her son had ever missed through illness.
— Tami Holtby (@Meemaw_Tami) April 17, 2015
The Caps rallied in Game 2 to a 4-3 win and, in his last two games, Holtby racked up an eye-popping 76 saves. It’s clear that he’s back to his normal cold-as-ice self.
Goalies Win Cups
Goalies are often the reason why teams win or lose the Stanley Cup, and Holtby has the game plan, the state of mind and the cool-under-pressure attitude that each of the recent Cup-winning goalies have possessed. He’s on record as a keen proponent of sports psychology and never lets setbacks, easy goals or a heckling crowd askew his concentration. That was evident Tuesday when the Islanders’ fans relentlessly chanted “Holt-By” throughout most of the game. The chanting ended abruptly when Backstrom hit the back of the net 11:09 into overtime for a 2-1 victory.
“Years of experience and years of finding a way how to do that,” Holtby said recently when asked about his icy demeanor and knack for not getting rattled by anything. “The mental game is kind of the thing I pride myself on. That’s what’s got me to this level.”
Game 5 of the series is at the Verizon Center Thursday at 7 p.m. If Holtby and the rest of the Capitals stay the course—expect a dismally sad end to the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island after Game 6.