Solid all sea­son, Holtby wob­bling at wrong time

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - Barry Svr­luga

toronto — If it looks as if Braden Holtby is bat­tling the puck at the mo­ment, it’s be­cause he is. Per­haps none of the 14 goals he has given up over the course of four games of this play­off se­ries against the Toronto Maple Leafs is par­tic­u­larly egre­gious. And he was, in some ways, the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals’ savior dur­ing a cru­cial two-man dis­ad­van­tage that be­gan the third pe­riod of Game 4 on Wed­nes­day night at Air Canada Cen­tre.

“It was nice to feel the puck a bit,” Holtby said. “There wasn’t many in the first two pe­ri­ods that were clean.”

With this en­thralling se­ries tied at two games apiece head­ing back to Ver­i­zon Cen­ter on Fri­day night, one of the Cap­i­tals’ ob­vi­ous strengths — Holtby, the reign­ing Vez­ina Tro­phy win­ner as the NHL’s best goalie and a can­di­date again this year — has be­come a bit of a wob­bly ques­tion mark. How did that hap­pen?

“It’s one of those types of stretches,” Holtby said af­ter a 5-4 win Wed­nes­day, “where ev­ery bounce seems to be go­ing the wrong way.”

Those are the words of a goalie who’s un­sure of him­self. And he

isn’t the only one with such an as­sess­ment. That five-on-three with which the Maple Leafs opened the third pe­riod? It might have been the only thing that kept Holtby on the ice for the en­tirety of Game 4. This all-star stud, the man who has pro­vided un­ques­tioned sta­bil­ity to what had been a volatile po­si­tion in Wash­ing­ton, was shaky enough to that point that Cap­i­tals of­fi­cials dis­cussed putting in backup Philipp Grubauer to start the third pe­riod.

But it wouldn’t have been fair to in­tro­duce Grubauer to play­off hockey with his team down two men. So Holtby re­mained, and his best work came in those two min­utes, when he made five saves. But make no mis­take: This is a sit­u­a­tion that bears watch­ing.

Holtby knows his po­si­tion, knows how he feels, un­der­stands the sit­u­a­tion. Thus, he re­al­izes that he’s search­ing a bit.

“You just got to fo­cus on the per­cent­ages, where [pucks] usu­ally go if you’re tak­ing them away,” he said. “There’s some I’ve played that you can’t re­ally do any­thing about, some that I’d like to change a bit. [I’m] try­ing to over­com­pen­sate, al­most, for the bad bounces at times with the screens and traf­fic and in­ter­fer­ence in front. It’s one of those times you’ve got to bat­tle, look at video a lit­tle more than usual to see cer­tain ways to fight through that.”

This is a mo­ment, with the topseeded Cap­i­tals be­ing pushed by the re­lent­less, care­free Maple Leafs, when Wash­ing­ton could use what ev­ery even­tual cham­pion needs: a vic­tory stolen by its goal­tender. And yet they’re com­ing off three straight games in which Holtby has al­lowed four goals.

Now, goals al­lowed is a com­plex equa­tion in­volv­ing the qual­ity of the de­fense, the odd bad bounce — say, off Nate Sch­midt’s face in Game 3 — op­por­tu­ni­ties for the op­po­si­tion with the ex­tra man, and lengthy over­time bat­tles, such as Game 2, which went more than 90 min­utes (in­clud­ing two over­times) be­fore Holtby gave up the fourth goal.

“He’s play­ing fine,” Coach Barry Trotz said Thurs­day. “It’s just not very predictable right now, be­cause there is stuff that is bounc­ing all over. It’s a pin­ball ma­chine out there a lit­tle bit.”

Still, the Caps need bet­ter than “fine.” It’s worth look­ing at Holtby’s body of work, and that clearly shows that a three-game stretch like this is an out­lier. Be­fore this se­ries, Holtby had 46 post­sea­son starts and gave up four or more goals seven times. Con­trast that with the times he had given up zero or one goals: 21 times. He has been a su­pe­rior play­off goalie, one with a .937 save per­cent­age en­ter­ing this se­ries — the best in the his­tory of the NHL. His 1.87 goals against av­er­age was sim­ply stel­lar.

The Cap­i­tals had ev­ery right to ex­pect that kind of work, what­ever it took, not this kind of work, which is prob­lem­atic. Holtby’s save per­cent­age in th­ese playoffs: .907. His goals against av­er­age (which com­pen­sates for the three over­time games): 3.01, 12th of 16 play­off goalies. And it’s not even the goals he has al­lowed. It’s the pucks he has fought on their way to his glove.

The last time Holtby gave up as many as four goals in three straight games was in Jan­uary 2015, losses against Nashville, Ed­mon­ton and Colum­bus. No one re­mem­bers those, though, be­cause they were in the dead of win­ter. Come spring­time, such per­for­mances stand out.

Per­haps the key mo­ment of Game 4 came with less than seven min­utes re­main­ing in the first pe­riod. Toronto de­fense­man Mor­gan Rielly fired a shot on net from be­low the right cir­cle. And in an ex­change that’s em­blem­atic of what’s go­ing on with the Cap­i­tals goal­tender, Holtby had it mo­men­tar­ily — but didn’t nec­es­sar­ily know it. It trick­led be­tween his pads.

“I prob­a­bly shouldn’t have let that puck get through me,” Holtby said. When he’s locked in, those saves are clean and con­fi­dent. But he’s not locked in, so the puck ended up creep­ing to the goal line. The ex­change be­came the sig­na­ture mo­ment of Game 4 be­cause Caps for­ward Tom Wil­son dived into the net to push the puck back out to Holtby and then sec­onds later skated up the ice to tip in Lars Eller’s shot, restor­ing a two-goal ad­van­tage for Wash­ing­ton.

All that’s great for the Caps. It’s not so great for Holtby. He is, by now, a play­off vet­eran, some­one who has been called for Cana­dian na­tional team duty. He is rec­og­nized as one of the best at his craft in the world.

“I’m not wor­ried about him at all,” Trotz said.

Per­haps not. But in the mid­dle of an open­ing-round play­off se­ries, there’s no ques­tion he’s hav­ing to fig­ure out a way to set­tle him­self.

“Ev­ery se­ries is dif­fer­ent, ob­vi­ously,” Holtby said. “This one is completely dif­fer­ent than most we’ve played in the past, just the way the puck’s go­ing in and the way things are hap­pen­ing. It’s a good men­tal test for us.”

This is, in re­al­ity, a cru­cial men­tal test for Holtby. The Caps have sur­vived his un­steady play to this point, and his his­tory would in­di­cate a turn­around.

But if there isn’t one, be pre­pared. Grubauer has to be. He’s next in line, and an­other open­ing two pe­ri­ods like Holtby pro­duced Wed­nes­day could well lead to a dra­matic change in net. For more by Barry Svr­luga, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/svr­luga.

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Braden Holtby has given up 14 goals in four games against the Maple Leafs. “It’s one of those times you’ve got to bat­tle,” he said.

JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Cap­i­tals goalie Braden Holtby en­ters Game 5 against the Maple Leafs hav­ing given up four goals in three con­sec­u­tive games.

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