A crucial aspect of any Stanley Cup run is goaltending. For the Capitals, that has been a question mark all season. Long-time starter Braden Holtby struggled in the regular season and was largely outplayed by the rookie Ilya Samsonov. But Samsonov suffered an injury prior to training camp and did not travel with the team to the bubble in Toronto. That safety net is now gone and the crease belongs entirely to Holtby. Is he up to the task? Based on what we saw in the round robin, the answer is an emphatic yes.
While the team put together a rather inconsistent performance in three round robin games, Holtby was one of the few bright spots.
"I think [Holtby's] for sure been our best player," T.J. Oshie said. "That's no question. I think he's tracking the puck very well."
The news is no surprise to New York Islanders head coach, Barry Trotz, who saw first hand how important Holtby can be in a playoff run and who will now have to figure out how to beat him in Round 1 of the playoffs.
"I can tell you that Braden is a quality goaltender and if you're going to beat any team in the playoffs, you're going to have to get to their goaltender, make it hard on them and all that," Trotz said. "I wouldn't have won a championship without Braden Holtby. I know that. I know his character, I know his ability."
For much of the season, however, Holby looked like a shadow of that goalie from the 2018 run.
Holtby posted a .897 save percentage and 3.11 GAA in 48 games in 2019-20. Statistically, it was by far the worst season of his career. It is the first time Holtby has been held to a sub .900 save percentage and also the first time he has been dinged for over 3.00 goals against. Washington's defensive struggles certainly were a factor as well, but Samsonov played behind that same defense and he recorded a .913 save percentage and 2.55 GAA.
With Samsonov out for the postseason, Holtby was going to have to be better for Washington to have any hope for a postseason run and, so far, he has been.
"it seems like he's seeing the ice and seeing the game really well," Oshie said. "He's anticipating right, he's making huge saves at big times for us and there hasn't been too many scrambles in front of our net. There's been a couple, but for the most part, he's doing a really good job of swallowing up rebounds and making it easy on the defensemen and centermen to not give them any second or third opportunities."
“What impresses me the most about him is he is always so calm back there," Nicklas Backstrom said. "He’s been playing great these last couple of games and you see the poise he is playing with. That is great to see and obviously he’s a big key for our team to be successful so moving forward here, that is what we need.”
Holtby seems to have benefitted significantly from the long pause to the season, but it is not just a matter of rest. Holtby acknowledged the pause gave him time to "fix a few things" in his game and the result of that work has been evident to head coach Todd Reirden.
"[Holtby's] a guy that I think has been able to really solidify his game with some time with Scott Murray, our goaltending coach, for the better part of Phase 2 before getting into Phase 3," Reirden said. "I think he’s able to re-establish some of the habits and the details in his game that have given him success in the past and been able to do it on his own learning curve with the extra time here. I think it’s proved beneficial."
The rebound could not have come at a better time.
Holtby has always been at his best during the postseason and boasts the fifth-best playoff save percentage in history. But at the age of 30 and with his regular season numbers on a steady decline for the last three years, it was fair to wonder if perhaps time had caught up to Holtby.
So far, however, it looks like Holtby is rounding into form just in time for the playoffs, just like he always seems to.
"It’s probably the sharpest and freshest I’ve seen him the last game against Boston and he’ll hopefully continue to build on that," Reirden said. "I think he’s headed in the right direction, that’s for sure.”
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