SAN JOSE – Todd Reirden was coaching the world’s best players. Braden Holtby was staring down one breakaway after another and just trying to hold on for dear life. John Carlson’s weekend was already made.
The NHL All-Star Game at SAP Center in San Jose was a nice showcase for a Capitals coach and two players who needed a mental break from a seven-game winless streak, but had to fly all the way across the country to find it. Now they can hit a beach somewhere and relax.
Coaching and playing for the Metropolitan Division, Reirden, Holtby and Carlson helped their team win the four-team All-Star tournament with wins over the Atlantic Division and the Central Division at SAP Center. It’s not exactly a Stanley Cup. But it was a lot of fun and now it’s time for a few days rest before the grind of the season begins again on Thursday.
“Just the whole experience for me was amazing to be able to go through something like this so early in my coaching career, to watch some of the players you battle against night in and night out, especially the Metro guys,” Reirden, in his first year as an NHL coach, said. “To have them in front of you and be able to see some of the things they do so well at top speed. It was really an amazing few days for me.”
If Friday was Carlson’s night when he won the hardest shot event at the NHL skills competition, Saturday belonged to Holtby. Despite facing one breakaway after another in the semifinal game against the Atlantic Division’s cadre of stars, Holtby managed to stop 11 of 13 shots in his 10 minutes of action. That allowed the Metro team to rally from 4-3 down for a 7-4 victory and a spot in the final.
Holtby gave up goals to Jeff Skinner and John Tavares on the first four shots he saw as a 3-2 lead after the first period turned into a 4-3 deficit. But he saved the final nine shots by the Atlantic – a few of them world-class stops that left his teammates shaking their heads. Holtby spoiled a drop pass from Nikita Kucherov to Auston Matthews with a sliding glove save and 25 seconds later deflected a Kucherov shot with his glove to keep the deficit 4-3.
Those two have history dating to last year when Kucherov slid a non-shot between Holtby’s legs during the All-Star game. Holtby’s revenge came in the Eastern Conference Final when the Caps beat the Lightning. Reirden called their cat-and-mouse tactics “a game with the game.” What was the approach?
“That he wasn't gonna score five-hole..." Holtby cracked before saying the same applied for Friday’s NHL skills competition shootout event. "Just cover the 5-hole. I didn't care what else he did. I think he just shot blocker or something? I didn't even move."
Jokes aside, Holtby had a little more trouble in the second game, a 10-5 Metro win over the Central. He gave up five goals on 17 shots, but entered the second period with a 5-0 lead, which was never really in danger in the win.
Reirden was essentially a coaching ringer. He was once an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins and knew exactly the type of player that star center Sidney Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang would want to play with: New York Islanders second-year forward Mathew Barzal. Crosby, Reirden knows from experience, likes playing with speedy wingers “who can do the work for him.”
Reirden also knew that Columbus Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson and defenseman Seth Jones would have solid chemistry, too. He pushed all the right buttons. Crosby was questionable to even play on Saturday with a minor injury, but when Letang found out they were playing with Barzal he said Crosby was a lock to take the ice. And so players who the Caps normally have a fierce rivalry with helped them, for a few days, forget about their own struggles.
“Winning is always nice,” Carlson, a first-time All Star, said. “It was a fun experience – new to me. I had a lot of fun with it.”
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