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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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How to watch the IIHF World Championship Finals: Date, Time, TV Channel, Lineups

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USA TODAY Sports Images

How to watch the IIHF World Championship Finals: Date, Time, TV Channel, Lineups

The 2019 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship is coming to a close this Memorial Day weekend.

After two weeks, the sixteen team field has been narrowed down to four with the world championship now on the line in Slovakia. 

The two group winners, Canada, the top-ranked team in the world and 26-time IIHF Champions, and Russia, who rolled through the group stage with a 7-0 record and a +29 goal differential, are the favorites. Russia overwhelmingly has played like the best team in Slovakia, outscoring its opponents 40-10 behind Nikita Kucherov's 16 points in eight games.

The Russian/ Soviet Union team is the only team with more titles than the Canadians with 27 (five as Russia, 22 as the Soviet Union). 

Washington Capital Alex Ovechkin is playing for Team Russia. In eight games he's scored two goals and recorded an assist. 

Canada will face off against the Czech Republic, whose only loss came against the Russians in group play, with a spot to the Finals on the line. Russia will play Finland for the last spot in the gold medal match.

Three of the four teams remaining (Russia, Canda, and the Czech Republic) are the winningest teams in the IIHF's history. The four semifinalists have combined to win 67 of the 82 IIHF World Championships.

When is the 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals?

The 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals will take place at 8:15 p.m. local time (2:15 p.m. ET) on Sunday, May 26. The bronze medal match will precede the gold medal match at 3:45 p.m. local time (9:15 a.m. ET). 

2019 IIHF World Championship Schedule:

There are only four matches left in the 2019 IIHF World Championship. The two semifinals, the bronze medal match, and the gold medal match.

SEMIFINALS:
No. 3 Russia vs. No. 5 Finland, 9:15 a.m. ET, May 25
No. 1 Canada vs. No. 6 Czech Republic, 1:15 p.m. ET, May 25

BRONZE MEDAL MATCH:
Loser of Semifinal No. 1 vs. Loser of Semifinal No. 2, 9:45 a.m. ET, May 26

GOLD MEDAL MATCH:
Winner of Semifinal No. 1 vs. Winner of Semifinal No. 2, 2:15 p.m. ET, May 26

How to watch or stream the 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals:

All games at the IIHF World Championships will be broadcast on NHL Network.

Who is playing in the 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals?

The 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals will be played between the winner of Russia (8-0-0)/ Finland (7-0-1) and Canada (7-1-0)/ Czech Republic (7-0-1).

Lineups for the 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals:

Lineups for the 2019 IIHF Championship Finals will be announced on the morning of May 26. 

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The Blues turnaround from last place to the playoffs began with a blowout win over the Caps

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USA Today Sports images

The Blues turnaround from last place to the playoffs began with a blowout win over the Caps

When the St. Louis Blues woke up on Jan. 3, they were in dead last in the NHL. A 15-18-4 record gave them 34 points, less than teams like the Los Angeles Kings and the Ottawa Senators who would go on to finish the season as the two worst teams. Yes, St. Louis had played in only 37 games to that point, the fewest in the league, but finding a way to climb back into the playoff hunt seemed daunting and unlikely.

Now the Blues are the Western Conference champions and stand just four wins away from the Stanley Cup.

The Blues have been one of the best stories of the NHL season climbing from last place to the Stanley Cup Final. When looking back at St. Louis’ season, there are several moments one can point to as key moments in the turnaround. Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as head coach on Nov. 20 and goalie Jordan Binnington got his first start with the Blues on Jan. 7 and never gave back the crease.

But the turnaround really started on Jan. 3. On that morning, the Blues were in last place. That would be the last day they would find themselves there.

And it all started with a 5-2 win against the Washington Capitals.

On Jan. 3, St. Louis and Washington looked like two teams headed in opposite directions. While the Blues were in last place, the Caps were rolling with a 24-11-3 record, first in the Metropolitan Division. Washington came into St. Louis on a five-game road winning streak. As if that wasn’t enough, the Blues were also without sniper Vladimir Tarasenko.

And yet, what looked like an easy win for the Caps turned into anything but. Robert Thomas scored a deflection just four minutes into the game. Washington managed to take a 2-1 lead early in the second, but St. Louis rattled off four straight goals for the 5-2 win. With Washington down only 3-2 heading into the third period, the Blues but on a possession clinic outshooting Washington 14-2 in the final frame.

"We stayed aggressive," Alex Pietrangelo told reporters. "When we're playing in the O zone, the best way to play defense is to play in their end. We kept the puck, we moved the puck, we worked. Forwards were great tonight, protecting the center of the ice. It kind of took their playmakers out of the game."

The Caps’ first shot came 13 minutes into the third. By then, the Blues already had 12 shots and two goals.

Over the course of an 82-game season, teams will lose games against teams they shouldn’t. This felt different. Watching this game, you did not come away thinking the Caps played down to an inferior team. The Blues dominated that game and the Caps knew it.

“They were skating, competing harder, won races, more determined than we were,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “If we’re being honest about it, we didn’t have a very good game, and they played a pretty darn good game.”
More importantly, St. Louis realized it as well. They knew following the game that this was a win and a performance they could build on.

“I think we out-chanced them, so we're building here at even strength,” Pietrangelo said. “It's just a matter of keeping it at even strength and scoring goals. Tonight the goals weren't necessarily pretty but we created a lot of chances."
That night proved to be the first night of the turnaround. From Jan. 3 on, no team in the NHL earned more points than St. Louis’ 65, not even the Tampa Bay Lightning who won the Presidents’ Trophy with an incredible 128 points.

St. Louis was not expected to be bad this season. The team made a number of offseason moves to bolster the roster and many thought they could be real contenders, but they sure did not play like it through the first half of the season. It took a big win over the defending Stanley Cup champs to show them and everyone else just how good they really were. From that point on, they never looked back.

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