Solid all season, Holtby wobbling at wrong time
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.
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.
Capitals goalie Braden Holtby enters Game 5 against the Maple Leafs having given up four goals in three consecutive games.