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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.”

RELATED: Jay Beagle: Chicago Blackhawks killer

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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Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stats
3.55 goals per game (1st in the NHL)
20.3-percent power play (13th in the NHL)

Goal leaders
1. Alex Ovechkin 34
2. Jakub Vrana 22
3. T.J. Oshie 18

Assist leaders
1. John Carlson 47
2. Nicklas Backstrom 29
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 26

Point leaders
1. John Carlson 60
2. Alex Ovechkin 50
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 42

Just in case you forgot about Ovechkin, he just let everyone know that yes, he is still outrunning Father Time with eight goals in the past three games. He remains one of the top scorers in the league, that is beyond dispute and so is this team's the top-six.

Backstrom, Wilson, Vrana, Kuznetsov and Oshie round out one of the best top two lines in the NHL. There are only a few minor concerns with this group.

Vrana and Kuznetsov have proven to be streaky performers. When they are hot, they are among the top offensive players in the NHL. Vrana is actually tied with David Pastrnak for third in the NHL in even-strength goals with 21. He is as dangerous a goal-scorer as just about anyone in the league. And everyone knows how good Kuznetsov can be at his peak. Just look at the 2018 Cup run.

You just have to cross your fingers and hope Vrana and Kuznetsov don’t get cold in the postseason because when their production tapers off, it craters.

Moving on to the bottom-six, let’s start with the fourth line because it is easier. Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway is one of, if not the outright best fourth line in hockey. They are able to hem opponents into the offensive zone and allow very little in the way of scoring opportunities. If you put any credence into things like Corsi, Nic Dowd is the best on the team with a Corsi-For percentage of 57.22 while Leipsic is 54.04 and Hathaway is 54.43. In a nutshell, what that means is this line is generating a heck of a lot more offensive opportunities than it is allowing which is a huge asset to have for a fourth line.

What’s more, these guys are the kind of players you hate to play against. Hathaway and Leipsic both play with an edge and Leipsic has a fair amount of speed as well. They have to make sure they limit the penalties they take, but otherwise this line is a huge asset.

That brings us to the third line.

While the offense is starting to pick up slightly, overall the numbers have just not been there. Lars Eller is doing fine with 11 goals and 16 assists, but Richard Panik is having a tough first year with five goals and five assists while Carl Hagelin has only three goals and eight assists and that’s including the two goals he scored in the past week.

Even as the line continues to improve, I do not think at its peak it is going to prove to be as good offensively as once hoped.

The third line has definitely found a role as a shutdown line, however, which is how Reirden has been utilizing them of late, using them to shut-down one of the opposition’s top lines both to limit their offense and also to free up Ovechkin’s line by getting it away from that matchup.

That’s easier to do at home, now Reirden has to figure out just how to best utilize the third line one the road where it is tougher to get the matchups you want.

Overall, however, this line is trending in the right direction. The power play, however, is not.

Though it ranks 13th in the NHL, that percentage is being propped up by a good start. Since Dec. 1, the power play ranks 30th in the NHL at 14.1-percent. The offense has just been non-existent. The struggles have clearly gone to the head of the players because it becomes a comedy of errors on the ice every time the team gets the man advantage. Reirden has tried Vrana on the top unit in Kuznetsov’s spot, but that spot is not well suited for Vrana as he is a sniper and Kuznetsov plays primarily around the goal line where shots are hard to come by. Kuznetsov on the second unit is largely wasted as there is not enough scoring talent on that unit for him to set up.

The result is two power play units playing without confidence and not producing while also allowing far too many shorthanded goals.

The verdict: Yes, the Caps have the offense to win the Cup.

In terms of the personnel, it is hard to get better than what the Caps have. The top two lines are loaded with talent and the fourth line is the best at what it does. The offense is lacking on the third line, but Reirden has found a role for it in which it can still have a positive impact on the game and its offensive production seems to be improving.

The only real concern is the power play, not only because it is completely ineffective but because the team is pressing so hard it has allowed five shorthanded goals, tied for the most in the league. As bad as it is, however, I think this is a case of frustration making things worse. With the personnel this team has, there is no reason for it to be producing at only 14.1-percent. Once they string a few goals together, things will turn around. I don’t think it will be among the most potent in the NHL, but I do think this is a low point and a natural progression will occur.

After the power play, however, it is hard to find a more potent offense than the one assembled in Washington.

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Capitals hosting Rock The Rink skate and watch parties around DMV

Capitals hosting Rock The Rink skate and watch parties around DMV

The Capitals may not be participating in Stadium Series this year, but the team is embracing outdoor hockey around Washington for spirited game day fun.

The Caps are hosting Rock The Rink skates at The Wharf, Penatgon Row, Rockville Town Square and The Avenue at White Marsh on select game days from January to March 2020. Fans attending these events can wear Capitals jerseys or gear to get either $5 off admission or free skate rentals.

The Wharf

Jan. 18 at 1 p.m., Jan. 31 at 6 p.m., and Feb 17. at 1 p.m.

Transit Pier will boast a Capitals-paneled ice rink with an ice resurfacer, trivia contests, giveaways, along with a DJ. The Capitals Campire will also boast Adirondack chairs around a fire to roast marshmallows for smores in front of a 14-foot jumbotron screen to watch the Capitals games. 

Pentagon Row

Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. and March 9 at 6 p.m.

These skates will feature Slapshot, giveaways, a DJ and Capitals-centic specials at local restaurants. The Caps games will also be on at surrounding bars. 

The Avenue at White March

Feb. 7 at 6 p.m.

This event will feature Slapshot, giveaways, a DJ and Capitals-centic specials at local restaurants.

Rockville Town Square

Jan. 31 at 5:30 p.m. and March 5 at 6 p.m.

In addition to the above fun, Rockville native and Capitals hockey ambassador Haley Skarupa will be there on Jan. 31. You can watch the Capitals game at local bars as well. 

Fans attending these events or using local outdoor rinks this season are encouraged to post about it on social media by tagging @capitals and using the hashtag #RockTheRink to enter themselves for a chance to win prizes.

Caps slept through the first 40 minutes, they did not give Holtby much help though he was bad in his own right and Vrana sure did show something with the game-winning goal.

As for no penalties...not so much.

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