In the wake of the Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory, many of the amazing playoff goals and goal scorers have been highlighted and praised. Evgeny Kuznetsov sending Pittsburgh home. Alex Ovechkin setting the early tone in Game 7 in Tampa. DSP flying through the air late in Game 5 in Vegas. Lars Eller delivering the first and last game-winning goals of Washington’s postseason. Each of them, as Craig Laughlin might say, “beauties” worthy of celebration.
But what about the guy preventing goals? Is Braden Holtby getting the credit he deserves? After backstopping the Caps to a Cup, you could forgive him for identifying with L.L. Cool J’s immortal lyrics, “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.”
The truth is Braden Holtby did have something to come back from. Was he exhausted by playing so many minutes over the last few seasons? Did he suffer a crisis of confidence? Had he lost focus or technique? Whatever the problem, Holtby’s play had broken down throughout February and March.
During a personal six-game losing streak from February 11th to February 26th, Holtby gave up no fewer than 3 goals in a game, stopping only 148 of 174 shots for an .845 save percentage. Not exactly the Vezina-worthy goalie Washington was used to having in net. Holtby often looked unfocused, losing his post and struggling with his positioning and rebound control. Braden bounced back a little in March, winning some games, but his save percentage still hovered below .900.
Fortunately for the Caps, Philipp Grubauer picked up the slack during Holtby’s struggles. The team didn’t lose much ground in the standings while Holtby worked to find his game. In a way, Philipp saved Washington’s season. Barry Trotz rewarded Grubauer by naming him the playoff starter. It was a bold choice by Trotz to leave a Vezina-winning goalie on the bench. Most pundits agreed Grubauer gave the Caps their best chance to win, but Braden Holtby had been the rock in net for five postseasons. Holtby handled the benching professionally, vowing to be ready if called upon.
And ready, he was. In retrospect, it worked well to have a quality “backup” waiting in the bullpen. Trotz called on Holtby to relieve Grubauer midway through Washington’s Game 2 loss to Columbus. Now it was Braden’s turn to save the season. Refreshed and refocused, Holtby stopped every shot he faced except the Blue Jackets’ overtime game winner. He rebounded when the series shifted to Columbus, winning four straight games to eliminate the Jackets.
Braden Holtby, beginning with that Game 3 win in Columbus, won 10 of his next 15 games, yet heading into Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final the Caps still faced elimination. That’s when Holtby took his game to the next level. In Games 6 and 7, Braden shut down the high-powered Tampa offense, stopping all 53 shots he faced. He had posted back-to-back shutouts to propel Washington to the Stanley Cup Final.
The historical record will show the Capitals earned the Cup by dispatching the Golden Knights in what might appear to be a lopsided series. However, the series may not have even made it to five games if not for Braden Holtby’s heroics in Game 2. Despite excellent career postseason statistics, the knock on Holtby has often been that he has failed to come up with the one stop needed to save a game or a season.
The one save that maybe he shouldn’t make, but does. The one save the Caps must have to turn the course of a season. That WAS the knock. THE SAVE changed all that. In Game 2, with time dwindling and Vegas desperate, a lucky bounce and quick pass led to the Knights’ Alex Tuch staring at a wide open net with the game-tying goal on his stick. The next moment, forever seared into every fan’s memory , may be the greatest highlight in Washington sports history. Braden Holtby, caught out of position, but not giving up on the play, lunged to his right flashing his paddle. He stole the puck from midair and quickly covered the rebound. It was the impossible save Washington needed.
Buoyed by the stop, Washington won four straight games to secure the franchise’s first Stanley Cup victory. The save was an iconic moment that punctuated Holtby’s sterling postseason. The Holtbeast finished the playoffs with a 16-7 record, a .929 Save Percentage, and a 2.04 Goals Against Average. All brilliant statistics proving that Braden Holtby was once again Washington’s rock between the pipes. From the bench to hoisting the Stanley Cup, Braden Holtby’s comeback was complete.
By Bryan Hailey