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Braden Holtby steps up when Caps need him most in shorthanded win over Detroit

Braden Holtby steps up when Caps need him most in shorthanded win over Detroit

Lost in the Capitals’ 7-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night was the strong performance of Braden Holtby who turned aside 25 of the 26 shots he faced. The only goal he allowed came late in the third period with the game already well in hand.

On Friday, however, Holtby did not get the same offensive support. This time, the team needed him to keep a clean sheet and he did just that, making 25 saves to blank the Detroit Red Wings and earn the Caps the narrow 1-0 win.

With T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky all suffering injuries in the first period, the burden fell upon Holtby to carry the team. Without a full line’s worth of players for forty minutes, he needed to be the team’s best player on the ice and he delivered.

"He's always one of our best players," Tom Wilson said. "Any given night, we know he's going to show up, we know he's going to be one of the best players on the ice if not the best on any given night. We're very privileged to have him."

RELATED: Trio of Caps suffer injuries; a Saturday recall is possible

It started in the first period as Henrik Zetterburg led a two-on-one rush and fed Tomas Tatar with a perfect pass for what should have been an easy goal. Holtby, however, stretched the pad to deny Tatar with the toe save. 

Heading into the second period, the team knew they had to play differently due to losing three players in order to prevent the Red Wings from grinding them down. Short shifts and smart play was emphasized in the locker room.

Holtby’s mentality was different in that he didn’t change anything.

“To be honest, I only knew Osh was out because of the replay," Holtby said. "That's something I can't control so I don't pay too much attention to it. I just try to focus on my game."

To make Holtby’s task even more difficult, the Caps took two penalties in the second period. Oshie and Eller both contribute on the penalty kill meaning the burden fell even more to Holtby to be the team’s best penalty killer. Once again, he stepped up.

Detroit managed six shots on net with the extra man, and Holtby was up to the task each time.

The save of the game came with just under a minute left to play in regulation. With the Caps clinging to a 1-0 lead, Detroit pulled goalie Jimmy Howard for the extra attacker. Justin Abdelkader tipped a pass between his legs from Holtby’s left to the right side of the crease to a waiting Gustav Nyquist. Nyquist had an empty net yawning, but Holtby stretched out the pad to deny the sure goal and preserve the lead.

"You talk about big moments, he stepped up," Barry Trotz said.

Despite the performance, Holtby stayed characteristically stoic after the game.

"You play every game as it is. There's some games you let in four and you played better than you get a shutout. You just have to play the game that's handed to you and focus on every shot and see what the outcome is."

The outcome was Holtby's 24th career shutout and a Capitals win that, whether he wants to admit it or not, was largely the result of his fantastic effort between the pipes.

Said Wilson, "He's always there for us to bail us out and it's nice to get him the shutout and get him the win."

MORE CAPITALS: Battered and bruised Caps manage late win over Red Wings

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Capitals one win away from facing the Penguins ... again

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Capitals one win away from facing the Penguins ... again

The Washington Capitals are one win away from advancing to the second round of the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs

If they do beat the Blue Jackets in Game 6 or Game 7, a familiar foe awaits them.

The Pittsburgh Penguins ended their series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday with a 8-5 win in Game 6. They will play the winner of the Capitals-Columbus Blue Jackets series.

Because of course they will.

The Penguins have beaten the Capitals in the second round in each of the past two seasons. The series went six games in 2016 and seven in 2017.

Washington’s biggest rival has been a thorn in the side of the Caps throughout the team’s history. Washington and Pittsburgh have met in the postseason 10 times. Only once have the Caps come out victorious, in 1994.

Pittsburgh has won five Stanley Cups in their history and each time, they had to beat the Caps in the playoffs to do it.

The emergence of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin helped to reignite the Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry, but that too has been one sided. Crosby has won three Stanley Cups while Ovechkin has never advanced past the second round.

Before you despair, however, consider this. Coming into the season, no one knew what to expect from the Capitals. Expectations were low. Somehow, Washington managed to overcome the loss of several players in the offseason and managed to win the Metropolitan Division.

In a season in which the Caps have already defied expectations, perhaps this will be the year they finally get past Pittsburgh and advance to the conference final. Maybe? Please?

First things first, they still need one more win against Columbus. Game 6 will be Monday at 7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

How the Caps stymied Artemi Panarin
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Capitals' PK unit the series difference-maker
John Tortorella makes Game 7 proclamation

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How the Capitals have limited Columbus' top offensive threat

How the Capitals have limited Columbus' top offensive threat

The Capitals boast a roster full of superstar forwards including players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The Columbus Blue Jackets do not.

As a team, Columbus’ offensive output is more spread out among the team, except for one offensive focal point: Artemi Panarin.

Traded in the offseason to Columbus from the Chicago Blackhawks, Panarin has proven this season to be a star in his own right rather than just someone hanging on to the coattails of his former linemate in Chicago, Patrick Kane.

Defensively, shutting down Panarin was priority No. 1 for Barry Trotz and company heading into their best-of-seven first-round playoff series

“We went into the series knowing fully well how good of a player Panarin is,” the Capitals head coach told the media via a conference call on Sunday. “He's a leader for them. It's no different than what they would do with Kuznetsov, Backstrom or [Ovechkin]. It's got to be a team game.”

Initially, things did not go well for the Capitals, as Panarin tallied two goals and five assists in the first three games. In Game 4 and Game 5, however, he was held off the scoresheet and finished with a plus/minus rating of -3.

For the series as a whole, Washington has actually done a good job of shutting Panarin down. Four of his seven points came on power play opportunities, meaning the Caps limited Columbus’ top forward to only three even-strength points in five games.

Washington’s strategy coming into the series was to give Panarin a healthy dose of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen. At 5-on-5 play, no two defensemen have been on the ice against Panarin anywhere near as much as the Orlov-Niskanen pairing. That’s been true all series. The offensive line Panarin has been matched against, however, has changed.

In Game 1, the Caps’ second line of Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky and T.J. Oshie matched primarily against Panarin’s line. That changed in Game 2. Since then, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson have been on Panarin duty.

There are several ways to approach matching lines against an opponent. Backstrom is one of the best shutdown forwards in the NHL. It makes sense for Trotz to want him out against Columbus’ most dangerous line. The problem there, however, is that Trotz was taking his team’s second line and putting it in a primarily defensive role.

In Game 1, Backstrom was on the ice for seven defensive zone faceoffs, 12 in the neutral zone and only two in the offensive zone.

The Capitals have an edge over Columbus in offensive depth, but you mitigate that edge if you force Burakovsky, Backstrom and Oshie, three of your best offensive players, to focus on shutting down Panarin.

Let’s not forget, Washington scored only one 5-on-5 goal in Game 1 and it came from Devante Smith-Pelly. They needed the second line to produce offensively so Trotz switched tactics and go best on best, top line vs. top line in a possession driven match up.

The strategy here is basically to make the opposing team's best players exhaust themselves on defense.

You can tell this strategy was effective, and not just because Panarin's offensive dried up. In Game 4, when the Blue Jackets could more easily dictate the matchups, Columbus placed Panarin away from the Caps’ top line, whether intentional or not.

Kuznetsov logged 7:27 of 5-on-5 icetime against Panarin in Game 4. Wilson (6:52), Oshie (6:46), Ovechkin (6:42) and Backstrom (6:01) all got a few cracks at Panarin, but nothing major. Those minutes are far more even than in Game 5 in Washington in which Ovechkin matched against Panarin for 12:45. Kuznetsov (12:42) and Wilson (12:30) also got plenty of opportunities against Panarin as opposed to Chandler Stephenson (2:10), Oshie (2:10) and Backstrom (2:01).

This is a match up the Caps want and the Blue Jackets are trying to get away from.

Trotz was asked about defending Panarin on Sunday.

“There's no one shadowing anybody,” Trotz said. “You know you want to take time and space from top players in this league, and if you do and you take away as many options as possible, you have a chance to limit their damage that they can do to you."

At a glance, this statement seems to contradict itself. You are going to take time and space away from Panarin, but you’re not going to shadow him? But in truth, this is exactly what the Caps are doing.

When the Caps’ top line matches against Panarin, if they continue attack and maintain possession in the offensive zone, that limits the time Panarin gets on the attack.

This will become more difficult on Monday, however, as the series shifts back to Columbus for Game 6. As the Blue Jackets get the second line change, just as in Game 4, you should expect to see Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella try to get his top line away from the Caps’ to avoid that matchup.

Shutting down Columbus’ power play and matching Panarin against both Ovechkin’s line and the Orlov-Niskanen pairing have been the keys to shutting him down. The Caps will need more of the same on Monday to finish off the series.

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