CAPITAL ONE ARENA – Phil Kessel darted with the puck out of the Penguins’ defensive zone, using all of his speed to try and catch the Capitals defense out of position. It worked. Madison Bowey appeared to think the back-checking Michal Kempny would be able to get into the passing lane and he cheated over to Kessel to cover him. Kempny was a step behind, however, and Kessel chipped the puck to a wide-open Garrett Wilson for the short breakaway.
It was the third period of a 1-1 game between the rival Caps and Penguins. That breakaway could have been the game-winner, it could have been the goal that ended Pittsburgh’s four-game losing streak, it could have been a painful way to end a rivalry matchup.
But it wasn’t.
Braden Holtby calmly swatted the breakaway shot away with the blocker to keep the game tied.
On Wednesday, Holtby had the type of performance we have become accustomed to seeing from him, but one that has proven elusive in the early season. He was calm, cool and collected in the crease and made up for all the team’s defensive breakdowns as a Penguins team desperate to pull out of its current tailspin made a hard push offensively.
“I felt comfortable as the game moved on,” Holtby said. “I got some breaks, too, early on. The posts obviously was a break we weren’t getting in the past.”
Holtby lamented after Wednesday’s morning skate that it seemed like there was at least one fluky goal in every game he had played up to that point this season. Finally, the bounces began to go his way on Wednesday as Pittsburgh hit the post multiple times and even missed on some empty net opportunities.
It was a lucky game to be sure, but Holtby was due for one. That also should not take away from the saves Holtby did make as he was absolutely brilliant when called upon.
The story of the night may have been T.J. Oshie’s heroics, and for good reason, as the Caps’ forward scored a late game-winner after having to leave the game twice for a high stick and then a hit to the head.
But Oshie’s storybook night would not have been possible without Holtby’s effort between the pipes and his teammates knew it.
“He was sweating back there,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “He had some shots to save. He had a hell of a game. I'll have to thank him for that.”
Pittsburgh certainly did not make things easy on the Caps netminder. The Penguins played a physically aggressive game against Holtby that led to frequent skirmishes after the whistle. Pittsburgh thought it had its second goal of the game in the first period, but the goal was immediately waved off as Carl Hagelin clearly pushed Holtby over just prior to the goal.
It was that kind of night in the crease.
“You knew they were going to come hard to the net,” Holtby said. “That was one of the things we kind of saw in the pre-scout was teams in their situation, that's usually the first thing they do is throw more bodies at the net. The biggest thing is to not get frustrated, just play through and trust the refs to make the right calls and they did tonight.”
Heading into Wednesday’s game, Holtby carried a save percentage of only .888 and a 3.62 GAA leading some to wonder if he was suffering a similar slump to the one that saw him lose the starting job prior to the playoffs last season. He showed against Pittsburgh that was not the case as he allowed only one goal and turned away the other 41 he faced.
When Holtby is at his best, he can make up for a lot of defensive breakdowns. Those turnovers were made to look more glaring in October as each one seemed to end up in the back of the net. But Holtby was good enough Wednesday to carry a Capitals team that was largely outplayed to the win.
Said Reirden, “For me, it was his best game of the year and he was a huge reason why we were able to win that one.”
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
- Mailbag: What to make of Pheonix Copley?
- Caps-Pens: Three reasons Caps beat their rivals
- Greatest game ever played?: Caps-Pens from Super Bowl Sunday 2010
- Russian connection: Language helps Jaskin fit in with Ovi, Kuzy on top line