Braden Holtby really struggled during the 2017-18 regular season and put up the worst numbers of his eight-year career with the Capitals. He posted a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.99 and a .907 save percentage (SV%), and failed to win more than 35 games for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
As the season went on, head coach Barry Trotz started giving more starts to backup Philipp Grubauer and eventually made him the starter.
Holtby actually began the postseason on the bench for the Capitals in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. However, that didn’t last long, and he regained his starting job by Game 3. Fast-forward to the present, and Holtby now has a very strong case for the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Holtby a Key for Capitals
The Washington Capitals are playing in their first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years. Several key factors have helped the Caps along in their run through the 2018 postseason. The play of Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, a team commitment to physicality, and timely scoring from bottom-six guys have all added up to Washington’s success so far.
Another major factor has been the play of Holtby. The former Vezina Trophy winner has been playing some of the best hockey of his career and has the Caps on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup.
In Round 1 of the playoffs, the Caps dropped the first two games to the Blue Jackets. Fortunately, when Trotz made the change to go back to Holtby in net, things quickly turned around for the Caps. Holtby helped lead his team to four straight wins to advance to Round 2 to face the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Against Pittsburgh, Holtby was able to make up for past postseason failures. He didn’t allow the Penguins to score more than three goals in a game and came up huge in the series-clinching Game 6 win by allowing just one goal.
During the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning, Holtby started strong in the first two games but then went through a stretch that saw him lose three consecutive games. He gave up 10 goals in those losses and saw his team pushed to the brink of elimination.
After losing those three games, Holtby shifted into a new gear. He posted back-to-back shutouts to close out the Lightning and propel the Caps to the final round.
Conn Smythe in the Cards
With the Capitals leading the Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final, the door is open for Holtby to contend for MVP honors. He was torched for five goals in Game 1 but has since settled in. In Washington’s two wins in Game 2 and Game 3, Holtby allowed just three goals.
He clearly stepped up his game and is playing well at the perfect time for the Caps. He has supplanted himself clearly in the conversation of candidates for this year’s Conn Smythe. His play has been a huge part of the success the Caps have had this postseason.
Through 21 postseason games, Holtby has a 2.13 GAA and a .922 SV%. He has picked up 14 wins, with two coming by way of shutout.
Since 2000, just five goaltenders have been awarded the Conn Smythe. The last was Jonathan Quick of the LA Kings in 2012. That stat could certainly change this season.
Before the start of the Stanley Cup Final, Holtby’s counterpart in net, Marc-Andre Fleury, was the frontrunner for the Conn Smythe. Fleury allowed just 10 goals in five games against the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference final. He’s already let the Caps score 10 goals through just three games.
Fleury is still on the short list of contenders for the Conn Smythe, but the competition is closer than it was before the start of the final round.
Should the Capitals continue their run and close out the Golden Knights to take the Stanley Cup, the selection for the Conn Smythe will be a tough one. Holtby’s teammate, Ovechkin, would have as strong of a case as anyone.
However, Holtby’s play in net and his ability to literally steal Game 2 with “The Save” would be hard to overlook.