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Braden Holtby vaults himself back into the Vezina conversation

Braden Holtby vaults himself back into the Vezina conversation

Braden Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, is once again the most dominant goaltender in the NHL.

Need some proof? Consider:

  • He’s 6-0 in his last seven starts.
  • He’s posted THREE shutouts in his last FIVE starts, and five shutouts in his last 14 starts. Overall, he’s now got six of them, which leads the league.
  • Since Dec. 23—a span of 10 starts—he's tops in just about every meaningful category for a goaltender, including wins (7), save percentage (9.52) and goals against average (1.28).

Friday’s masterpiece—a 6-0 blanking of the Blackhawks—was the latest example of Holtby's recent excellence. Facing the Western Conference's best team, he stopped all 24 shots he faced from Patrick Kane and Co., including a handful of critical chances early in the second period as the ‘Hawks, already down 3-0, attempted to mount a comeback.   

“He was great,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “He got a couple of a really good saves early in the second. You knew they were going to have a push. I’ve coached against the Blackhawks a lot, and I look at the core group and it’s a fantastic core group, a proud group. I got to know some of them at the World Cup. I knew they were going to come and have a real good push.”

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Indeed, Holtby made a number of key saves in the opening minutes of the middle frame. Among them was a point-blank stop on Artem Anisimov, who has a Blackhawks-best 18 goals. Holtby managed to smother the rebound and get a whistle just as Artemi Panarin arrived on the scene.

A few minutes later, Holtby was involved in another key moment. The Blackhawks thought they had pulled to within 3-1 on a goal by Vinnie Hinostroza, who capitalized on a fortuitous bounce off of Justin Williams’ skate. Holtby, however, immediately protested, claiming he was interfered with by Marian Hossa. Trotz challenged the goal and the officials, after a video review, agreed.

“When he came across he caught the end of my stick which stopped my ability to get my blocker over there,” Holtby explained. “A play like that, I wasn’t really sure what the call was going to be, whether he thought I had a chance to stop the puck or not. It was interference, but whether it had anything to do with the goal, I didn’t know. It was nice to get a call to go our way.”

Added Trotz: “I thought Holts was really good. You could see that they were gaining momentum. Our video coaches did a really good job on the coach’s challenge. I thought it was a pretty key point. We kept off them board, then we take a penalty, we kill that off and then we come out and Tom Wilson scores that goal. To me, that was huge in terms of momentum.”

After enduring some un-Holtby-like inconsistencies earlier this season, he's slowly but surely returned to elite status. That ascension, though, really began to accelerate six games ago, after he was pulled against Toronto.

It was the first time all season the 27-year-old had been yanked. And, as he has repeatedly acknowledged, it forced him to take stock of his game and tweak a few areas that needed attention.      

“We’ve worked on a few things that I wanted to get better at,” he said after the Chicago game. “We’ve been playing pretty well during that stretch, too. And we’ve got a bit of luck here and there with a couple of posts and such. There’s still things to work on, but our game and my game are going in the right direction.”  

“I was kind of feeling a little off in certain areas before” getting pulled, Holtby added. “And that was just the tipping point, I guess, and I figured out a way in practice to fix it.”

And fix it he did.

After Friday’s games, Holtby now ranks first in shutouts (6), second in goals against average (1.85) and third in both save percentage (.933) and wins (21).

Just few weeks ago, he wasn’t even in the Vezina conversation. Now you can’t have that discussion without mentioning him in the same breath as Devan Dubnyk, Sergei Bobrovsky and Tuukka Rask.

MORE CAPITALS: Capitals rout Western Conference-leading Blackhawks

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Team USA reclaims women's hockey gold from Canada in instant Olympic classic

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USA TODAY Sports Images

Team USA reclaims women's hockey gold from Canada in instant Olympic classic

GANGNEUNG, South Korea  -- The Americans' gold medal drought in women's hockey -- finally -- is over.

Even though they needed the first shootout in an Olympic women's final to do it.

Twenty long years after taking gold when the sport debuted in 1998 at Nagano, the United States snapped Canada's streak of four straight Olympic golds Thursday with a 3-2 shootout victory.

Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson scored in the sixth round of the shootout to start the Americans piling over the boards, throwing gloves in the air before huddling and hugging on the ice.

Gigi Marvin and Amanda Kessel also scored in the shootout. Monique Lamoureux-Morando tied it up with a breakaway with 6:21 left in regulation.

Hilary Knight also had a goal.

RELATED: WHICH WINTER OLYMPIANS REPRESENT THE D.M.V?

Maddie Rooney made 29 saves for the win against their archrival. The 20-year-old goalie stopped the last two Canadian shooters in the shootout in Brianne Jenner and then Meghan Agosta on her second attempt.

It was sweet redemption for the 10 Americans who watched the Canadians snatch gold from their hands in 2014 at Sochi after tying it up with 54.6 seconds left in regulation and winning 3-2 in overtime.

Not only did the Americans snap the Canadians' stranglehold on Olympic gold, they ended a skid of five straight against their rival coming into this game, including a 2-1 loss to wrap up pool play a week ago.

Marie-Philip Poulin and Haley Irwin each scored goals for Canada. Agosta and Melodie Daoust scored in the shootout.

The Americans had been dominating in non-Olympic years, winning the last four and eight of the last 10 world championships, including a 3-2 overtime victory over Canada last spring.

Their domination on the world stage only made the lack of gold at the Olympics all the more noticeable, and Canada has been in their way since losing the inaugural gold in Nagano. Canada had won 24 straight Olympic games to go along with four consecutive gold medals. It's a streak of success in a women's team sport second only to the United States' basketball team's current streak of six straight gold.

This was the eighth time these North American rivals met in the Olympics and the fifth with gold on the line. None of the previous seven were decided by more than two goals.

U.S. coach Robb Stauber went with the 20-year-old Rooney in net for the biggest game of her career, but she was the goalie for each of the three games the Americans beat Canada last fall during their pre-Olympic exhibition tour, including Four Nations Cup title in November.

Canada had Shannon Szabados, 31, in goal for her third Olympic gold medal game, and her teammates made her job very easy by keeping the puck in front of Rooney for most of the first period by dictating play. The Americans couldn't use their speed or get organized even with two power plays until Sarah Nurse went in the box for interference late in the period.

Knight gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead with 25.4 seconds left in the first, redirecting a shot from Sidney Morin through Szabados' pads giving the Americans a jolt of energy.

That lasted only 2 minutes into the second when Irwin tipped a pass from Blayre Turnbull over Rooney's left leg for Canada. When Morin lost the puck, Melodie Daoust grabbed it and passed to Meghan Agosta who hit Poulin for the wrister into the left side of the net at 6:55 for a 2-1 lead.

 

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Capitals Faceoff Podcast: The Caps add two defensemen, problem solved?

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NBC Sports Washington

Capitals Faceoff Podcast: The Caps add two defensemen, problem solved?

The Capitals got their trade deadline started early by trading for defensemen Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek. Washington has been struggling of late, but do their new acquisitions address the team's weaknesses?

JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir evaluate the two trades and talk about where they could fit into the lineup.

You can listen to the latest episode here on the Capitals Faceoff page or with the player below.

Want even more great Capitals coverage? Follow @TarikNBCS and @JJReganNBCS on Twitter!