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Holtby: Caps' saving grace

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Holtby: Caps' saving grace

NEW YORK About an hour before every game, Braden Holtby will find a spot in the arena and transform it into his personal reflection garden.

At the Verizon Center, it is often behind the Capitals bench. At Madison Square Garden, it is in the front row of seating directly behind the goal he will defend.

Holtby will stand there, leaning on his goalie stick, and begin a lengthy routine of rapid eye movements, hip rotations and quirky body movements. At some point before the game, he will close his eyes and visualize himself in a calm and quiet place.

On a beach chair, facing rolling turquoise waves, toes in the sand gliding across a frozen lake in snow-covered northern Saskatchewan

He will begin deep breathing exercises taking slow and deliberate breaths, six per minute that lower his heart rate.

And while the crowd works itself into a frenzy after the national anthem, Holtby will stand motionless for 12 seconds, then ramp up his emotions. Hell slide on his pads into his goal crease. Hell punch his goal posts with his blocker and wickedly whack the corners of his cage with his goalie stick, a la Ron Hextall.

Alex Semin will knife his stick between Holtbys pads and finally the 22-year-old rookie goaltender be ready for drop of the puck.

Capitals associate goalie coach Olie Kolzig sees Holtbys pre-game routine and smiles.

One thing that maybe well address next year is just the amount of stuff -- Holtbyisms as you guys call them, Kolzig said. Maybe we can cut those down a bit, because eventually its going to wear on him and itll burn him out.

But for right now its working, so dont mess with it. I think the more he plays here, the more comfortable hes going to get and the more confident. Once he starts feeling a lot more like hes part of the NHL, I think some of that stuff will filter or phase out. But right now, whatever hes doing is working, and guys are feeding off of it.

Holtby enters tonights pivotal Game 5 in New York having gone 27 straight NHL games without consecutive defeats. He is 6-5 in the playoffs and ranks sixth in goals-against average (1.94) and sixth in save percentage (.933). He has allowed two or fewer goals in seven of his 12 starts.

But what his teammates like most about Holtby is the accountability he places on himself, win or lose.

He wants to win. He wants to do better, Capitals left wing Jason Chimera said. He puts the blame on himself a lot, which I think is unnecessary a lot of times.

You see a lot of goalies, when they get scored on, they throw their hands up in the air, looking around to see whos to blame. Hes not that kind of guy. Most of the shots he thinks he can save.

Through 12 playoff games, the Capitals have blocked a league-high 244 shots.

He taps guys on the pads when they block a shot, Chimera said. Hes a good kid, and you want to go down and block shots for a guy like that. You see that. Guys are diving in front of shots to help him out.

Holtby, 22, said he learned at a young age that being a good teammate was more important than being a good goaltender.

Its a big thing, he said. I put more blame on myself than anyone, because as a goalie, your job is to make up for your teammates mistakes. You cant be mad if they make them. Sometimes when youre kind of looking to the heavens after a goal, it looks bad. But my view is, Im here to make up for their mistakes and not bring them down because of them.

Holtby has also proved to be unflappable in hostile environments. He went 3-1 in Bostons TD Garden in the first round, including a nail-biting, 2-1 overtime win in Game 7. And he is 2-1 at Madison Square Garden this season, including a season-ending victory that secured the seventh seed for the Capitals.

Its a lot similar to Boston, Holtby said of the atmosphere of Madison Square Garden. Fans are into it. MSG is an exciting place to play. But were not focused on what New York is like. Our focus is trying to get a win. Once youve experienced it once, it doesnt really affect you much. I have one job to do, and thats stop the puck.

Capitals coach Dale Hunter, who turned to Holtby after late-season injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, said that kind of mindset is crucial for a goalies success.

Hes mentally tough, Hunter said. To play goal at this level, you have to be. Hes confident. Hes got a tough job. The buck stops there. If he gives up a breakaway goal, he blames himself even if we make three mistakes before that. Thats what kind of kid he is, and thats why guys want to play in front of him so hard.

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Las Vegas changes iconic welcome sign to include no capital letters

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Twitter/City of Las Vegas

Las Vegas changes iconic welcome sign to include no capital letters

The Washington Capitals official #ALLCAPS hashtag started in 2017 during a Caps-Penguins game after the Pittsburgh Penguins' official Twitter account decided to tweet in all lowercase letters during the game. 

Now, as the Caps look to face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final ahead of Game 1 Monday, Vegas has followed suit by changing their iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign to include only lowercase letters, a jab at the Capitals #ALLCAPS.

Additionally, the City's official Twitter account has changed their handle to "the city of las vegas" without any capital letters and the hashtag #nocaps.

It will be interesting to see how the Capitals' official Twitter will respond...

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

The Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights have met only twice in their history. Neither team was expected to get to this point so you can go ahead and throw away the stats, the matchups, the data and the history. A new story will be written in the Stanley Cup FInal.

Who will ultimately win the Cup? Here are four factors that could ultaimtely swing the series.

1. Goaltending

The Caps have faced elimination only twice in the playoffs and Braden Holtby did not allow a single goal in either game. He enters the Stanley Cup Final having not allowed a single goal in 159:27. Andrei Vasilevskiy began to take over the series with his performance in Game 3, Game 4 and Game 5, but Holtby outplayed him to finish off the series in Washington’s favor.

Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, has been the best player in the playoffs. Not the best goalie, the best player.

Through 15 games, Fleury has a .947 save percentage and four shutouts. As good as Vegas has been this postseason, Fleury has stolen several games for the Golden Knights.

Both of these goalies are certainly capable of stealing away a series for their respective teams. Which one will outplay the other?

2. Time off

Rust is a real thing in hockey. Just any team when they come off a bye week. When the Caps and Golden Knights take the ice on Monday, May 28, it will be the first game for Vegas since May 20. That’s over a week off.

Yes, getting rest at this time of the year is important, but too much rest leads to rust and that should be a major concern for Vegas, especially for a team that was playing so well and has so much momentum.

In the Eastern Conference Final, the Caps stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning by winning both Game 1 and Game 2 in Tampa. Could they do it again with a rusty Vegas team? Will the long layoff cost the Golden Knights one or even two home games to start the series?

3. The McPhee factor

Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was the Caps’ general manager for 17 years starting with the 1997-98 season. He was fired in 2014, but was ultimately responsible for building the core of the Washington team that is now headed to the Stanley Cup Final.

But that also means he knows those players very, very well.

Nicklas Backstrom, Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson, Christian Djoos, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and of course, Alex Ovechkin were all drafted by McPhee. Jay Beagle was also signed by as an undrafted free agent.

A general manager does not sign or draft anyone without knowing a good deal about the kind of player they are. Does that give McPhee a bit of an edge when it comes to facing the Caps?

4. Speed

The Golden Knights are fast. When the expansion draft was all said and done it was clear McPhee had targeted two things specifically: defensemen and speed. The result is an exceptionally fast Golden Knights team that no one has been able to keep up with so far.

Vegas' speed mixed with the goaltending of Fleury has proven to be a lethal combination. Their mobility makes it hard to get the puck from them or even keep it in the offensive zone. Once they get it, it’s going down the ice very quickly and you better keep up with them or it's going to end up in the back of the net. Once they build a lead, it is very difficult for teams to dig their way out as evidenced by their 10-1 record this postseason when scoring first.

Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh were both fast teams as well and the Capitals were able to combat that with strong play in the neutral zone. The 1-3-1 trap has given opponents fits and generated a lot of odd-man breaks for the Caps. Will it be as effective against a speedy Vegas team?

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