WASHINGTON — Braden Holtby made his decision and did not look back.
Late in the second period of a 2-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday, a Capitals turnover led to a breakaway for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Alone in his net, with Ristolainen and the puck speeding toward him, Holtby broke from his crease like a racehorse.
As he neared the top of the slot, 25 feet from his cage, Holtby did the only thing he could: He slid on his rear end. It worked – at first. Holtby knocked the puck toward the blueline, but right to Buffalo forward Connor Sheary.
On the ice and with no other option left to him, Holtby reached out with his stick and chopped the puck from Sheary, who recovered it anyway just inside the blueline and with an empty net yawning 30 feet away he took a shot. Holtby got that one, too, deflecting it into the crowd.
It was a huge series of saves in a 1-0 game with 2:23 left in the second period. Holtby finished with 36 saves and the Capitals are now 16-4-0 in their past 20 games.
“I thought I could get there. I was thinking I'd kind of have to get down to try and seal the ice and get it out of the blue line there,” Holtby said. “Once I went to go down, he kind of stopped skating which was strange. I didn't really see the second guy coming so after that you just try and do whatever you can to keep it up.”
In 15 appearances since Nov. 7. Holtby has a .926 save percentage and a 2.34 goals-against average. But Friday might have been his best game. Against a rising, talented young team that could make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2011, he helped kill all four penalties taken. Buffalo’s power play had scored twice at Capital One Arena just last Saturday in a 4-3 shootout win for Washington.
“Turns out to be the right maneuver for sure,” Caps coach Todd Reirden said. “But the second effort is the really impressive thing. To be able to have that wherewithal to come back around with the second swipe of the stick…Braden was tremendous. One of his strongest games of the year for sure.”
Teammates gave Holtby credit for all of that. But the sliding saves with not one, not two, but three blocks made them smile the most, though.
“I mean Don Cherry Rock ‘em Sock ‘em like [edition] 12 or 10 maybe back in the old school days,” Caps forward Tom Wilson said, referencing the highlight videos put out by Canadian hockey commentator Don Cherry in the 1990s and 2000s. “Goalies have bigger gear on now, they don’t come out as much, but that was pretty fun to see. I was in the offensive zone so I was just hoping it stayed out of the net.”
With Holtby out by the blueline wrecking havoc, teammates Dmitry Orlov and Jakub Vrana were manning the net just in case a puck got through. Their turnover in the offensive zone sparked the whole gong show so it was only fitting they helped cover for Holtby, who in the end didn’t need them. He did it himself.
"I actually couldn't believe that,” Caps forward Chandler Stephenson said. “I don't think I've ever seen a goalie that far out. It was funny watching all guys playing goalie, they just kind of went to the net, and he was playing out. Thought [Holtby] was going to get it and start forechecking."
Holtby looked to be hurt late in the game – though he insisted it was just cramps from an unseasonably warm arena. With 2:12 to go, after a wild scramble in the crease, Holtby stayed on a knee and continued to flex his left leg. He needed a visit from the trainer and about two minutes to collect himself but stayed in the game.
Buffalo had a 5-on-4 power play for almost the rest of the game and Holtby stopped five shots in the final 2:12 to preserve the win. But Holtby couldn’t have felt too good when Sabres rookie defenseman Rasmus Dahlin jumped on top of him at the end of another crease scramble following two Buffalo shots on goal with 22 seconds left. Holtby and the Caps were just trying to survive - and they did.
"There's not much you can say. That's [Holtby]. He's the backbone of our team,” Stephenson said. “I think he got injured there the last two minutes or so, and he stuck in there and made some more tremendous saves, so that's him. He's a warrior for us, a huge part of our team and why we win games."
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