As the trade deadline approaches, so do talks and speculations about the postseason. For the Washington Capitals, netminder Braden Holtby is regarded as one of the best in the postseason with playoff career numbers of a 2.00 GAA (goals-against average) and a .932 save percentage.
Two years ago, heading into the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Holtby came off of a Vezina-winning regular season performance and did not disappoint in the playoffs (1.72 GAA, .942 SV%). Unfortunately, his dominant performance would not carry the Capitals past the second round as they were eliminated in the second round by the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Following an identical 2016-17 season, Holtby captured the William M. Jennings Trophy after another strong season as Washington’s number one goaltender. Enter the playoffs, and something is not quite right. Holtby’s stats weathered with a goals-against average of 2.47 and .909 save percentage. This trend was noticeable, as Holtby didn’t seem to be able to see the puck very well and let in quite a few leaky goals that he would normally stop. The Capitals once again had their playoff run cut short by the eventual back-to-back champion Penguins.
Holtby “,, affectionately known as Holtbeast” has become a fan favorite in Washington ever since he broke out in star fashion during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He has racked up more wins in the last few seasons than any other active goaltender; so it is walking on thin ice to critique such an elite player. Many Caps fans argue that the defense was not strong enough the last few postseasons, although viewing the Capitals’ stats from the last two playoff runs, that may not have been the case.
Capitals’ Playoff stats:
The Caps played well defensively in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs and their solid goals-against per games played (GA/GP) went hand-in-hand with the excellence of Holtby. Averaging a rounded two goals for per games played (GF/GP) is just not good enough to win every playoff series. The Caps’ offense never has been as dominant as it normally is in the regular season, partly because of the higher intensity and urgency of play in the playoffs. The following season, the Caps scored a better 2.77 GF/GP, but matched that in GA/GP. Holtby struggled, posting career-low playoff numbers despite the roster being just as strong (on paper) defensively as the previous season. This poses the question: If Holtby would have performed better, would it have been enough for the Caps to prevail?
Holtby’s current regular season numbers are the lowest they have been since the 2013-14 season; ironically, the last time the Capitals missed the playoffs (2.76 GAA, .915 SV %). He has also failed to record a shutout so far this season, which is uncharacteristic of him. In his defense, the Caps’ defense is not as strong this season, with significant departures last summer forcing the Capitals to start two rookie blueliners. Rookie Christian Djoos (three goals, 13 points, plus-10) has played well and looks more NHL-ready than his fellow rookie Madison Bowey (zero goals, 12 points, minus-1), but still shows signs that he has much to learn, such as when he turned over the puck right in front of Holtby in a recent game against the Penguins, giving Carl Hagelin a clean break at Holtby.
Even the veteran defensemen are heavily-criticized for turning over the puck, creating high risk chances for the opposition. Holtby has also faced a total of 1,219 shots against, which places him at eighth in the NHL in that department and an average of 31.3 shots against per game. This is much higher than last season’s 26.8 shots against per game. In the playoffs last season, Holtby faced an average of 28 shots against, which is lower than the 30.3 he faced in the 2016 playoffs, yet he still fared worse. Despite the dip in Holtby’s numbers, the Caps currently stand at first in the Metropolitan Division and are expected to make the playoffs. While the nail-biting trade deadline approaches and the regular season winding down, questions need to be answered. What can we expect from Holtby the rest of this season? Will he bail the Caps out when they need him the most? Will the defense be upgraded enough to stabilize him and allow him to see the puck? Should the Caps just go with more offense? Only time will tell.
By Roman Borris