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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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Is Alex Ovechkin still the best winger in the NHL?

Is Alex Ovechkin still the best winger in the NHL?

When you win the Rocket Richard Trophy for the most goals, lead your team to a Stanley Cup and win the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, you certainly belong in the discussion among the best in the game.

Even after Alex Ovechkin's incredible season, however, he falls just short of the top spot, according to NHL Network.

The NHL Network revealed the "Top 20 Wings Right Now" rankings as part of its countdown series on Sunday and Ovechkin came in second. Ahead of him was Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

A compelling case could certainly be made for both players. Kucherov finished third in the NHL in points with a career-high 100 points (29 goals, 61 assists). Ovechkin, meanwhile, led the NHL in goals with 49 in his 87-point season.

The main argument for Kucherov is that he is 25 while Ovechkin will turn 33 in September and the ranking is for "right now." Ovechkin, however, is still basking in the glow of the Caps' Stanley Cup run which happened just a short two months ago. He also beat and outplayed Kucherov when the Caps met the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, outscoring him with seven points (four goals, three assists) compared to Kucherov's five (one goal, four assists).

Ovechkin's case is a compelling one as evidenced by the fact that he edged out Kucherov in the fan voting.

And then...there's analyst Mike Johnson who believes Ovechkin is neither No. 1 or No. 2. In fact, he barely cracks the top five.

Father Time is undefeated and there will come a point where Ovechkin begins to decline. But when the last competitive NHL hockey game was played, it featured an Ovechkin goal and him hoisting both the Conn Smythe and the Stanley Cup. Two months wasn't that long ago so perhaps we should not be expecting his production to fall off a cliff just yet.

The Great 8 has a way of making those quick to bury him look pretty foolish. Will he keep up that trend this season?

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2018-19 Metropolitan Division preview: Carolina Hurricanes

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USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 Metropolitan Division preview: Carolina Hurricanes

The Capitals have won the Metropolitan Division three straight years. Can they defend their title? Here’s a preview of each team in the division for the 2018-19 season.

Today's team: Carolina Hurricanes

2017-18 Results: 36-35-11, 83 points, sixth in the division. Did not qualify for the playoffs.

Notable acquisitions: F Micheal Ferland, F Andrei Svechnikov, D Dougie Hamilton, D Calvin de Haan, G Petr Mrazek, head coach Rod Brind’Amour

Notable departures: F Elias Lindholm, F Joakim Nordstrom, F Derek Ryan, F Jeff Skinner, F Lee Stempniak, D Noah Hanifin, G Cam Ward, head coach Bill Peters

When they will play the Caps: Dec. 14 in Raleigh, Dec. 27 in Washington, March 26 in Washington, March 28 in Raleigh

Offseason recap: The offseason was one of change for the Hurricanes as new owner Tom Dundon tried to make his mark. Peters and Ron Francis are out, Brind’Amour and Don Waddell are in as coach and general manager. Carolina’s new front office had a busy offseason with a number of splashy moves.

Hanifin, Lindholm and Skinner all will have new homes next season as the Hurricanes traded all three players in two big-time trades. Hanifin and Lindholm netted the team Hamilton, Ferland and a prospect while Skinner brought back a prospect, a second, a third and a sixth-round pick.

In addition, Carolina also added Svechnikov with the second-overall pick in the draft.

Biggest strength: Defense

Carolina was solid defensively last season, it just didn't seem that way because of how bad the goaltending was. Adding de Haan and Hamilton bolsters what was already a formidable blue line.

Biggest weakness: Goaltending

Did I mention how bad their goaltending was last season? Darling and Ward combined for a .909 save percentage, better only than the Buffalo Sabres. Ward put up better numbers (2.73 GAA, .906 save percentage) than Darling (3.18 GAA, .888 save percentage), but he has moved on to the Chicago Blackhawks. To replace him, the Hurricanes picked up Mrazek who also struggled last season (3.03 GAA, .902 save percentage).

So to recap, Ward and Darling both had subpar years, but to replace Ward the Hurricanes picked up a goalie who was worse.

It makes sense that Carolina would want to give Darling another shot at earning the starting job considering they traded for him to be their starter of the future, but just because the goaltending could not get much worse than last season is no guarantee it will be better.

2018-19 season outlook: The Hurricanes enter the season with a lot of question marks.

Can Brind'Amour handle the responsibilities of being a head coach in the NHL with zero head coaching experience at any level? Did they do enough to address their scoring woes? Will someone play like a starting-caliber goalie? Is Dundon breaking the mold of an NHL owner or will his meddling negatively impact the team? Will Hamilton adjust to his new team? Is Svetchnikov ready for a top-line role in his rookie season? Is Sebastian Aho a center?

If they can find positive answers to all of those questions, this is a team that could surprise. More likely, however, there are simply too many issues in Carolina right now for this team to make any real noise.

A new owner, new general manager, new head coach and a new-look roster are too much for one team to adjust to in one season.

2018-19 season prediction: The Hurricanes miss the playoffs and it's not close.