Every year there has always been something that has gotten in the way of the Capitals going deep in the playoffs.
In 2008 against the Flyers, it was a Tom Poti penalty that led to Joffrey Lupul’s overtime goal in Game 7 of the first round.
In 2009 against the Penguins, it was shaky goaltending by Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov that led to an eventual Game 7 blowout loss to the Penguins in Round 2.
In 2010 against the Canadiens, it was Jaroslav Halak that stunned the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the first round.
In 2011 against the Lightning, it was injuries to defensemen Mike Green and John Carlson that led to a quick exit in Round 2.
In 2012 against the Rangers, it was a late double minor to Joel Ward in Game 5 that led to a pair of goals, turning a 3-2 series lead into a 3-2 series deficit and an eventual Game 7 defeat.
In 2013 against the Rangers, it was the shot-blocking prowess of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi that halted Alex Ovechkin in Round 2.
And in 2015 against the Rangers it was the Caps’ inability to put the dagger in the Rangers after going up 3-1 in the series that allowed the Rangers to prevail in seven games.
“Every year we have a chance to be in the playoffs and a chance to win the Cup,” Alex Ovechkin told reporters on Monday in Buffalo.
“What’s good about this team is we have one of the best goalies in the league and a hot goalie in Holts. We know if we’re going to make a mistake he’s there and he’s going to save it. On a good team, a goalie is 75 percent of the success. I think years before we don’t have that guy.”
Braden Holtby then went out and made those words sound prophetic by stopping 31 shots in a 2-0 shutout, running his personal regulation unbeaten streak to 16 games (15-0-1) . It is the longest stretch of not losing in regulation since 2013-14 when Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller (14-0-2) and Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov (11-0-5) each went 16 games without a regulation loss.
In 29 starts for the Caps, Holtby ranks first in the NHL in wins (23) and goals-against average (1.86) and second in save percentage (.935).
“He’s our best player and the best goalie in the league right now,” Ovechkin said.
“He’s definitely the main reason we’re at the top (of the Eastern Conference) right now,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You need a good goaltender to win and go deep in this league and he’s our guy right now and we’ve got to protect him.”
The Capitals’ Stanley Cup aspirations flashed in front of their eyes with 4:10 remaining in Monday night’s game when Tyler Ennis saw a loose puck at Holtby’s feet and darted toward the crease, crashing helmets with Holtby as the puck crossed the goal line.
The goal was immediately waved off, but after the game Sabres coach Dan Bylsma wasn’t quite sure why.
“The puck was available,” Bylsma said. “It was open and in his feet, so everybody should have been driving in there. It’s not a situation where the puck was covered. The puck was sitting there between his legs and the goalie didn’t know where it was at.”
Holtby admitted as much, hinting he thought a goalie interference penalty might be called on the play.
“I didn’t really know where the puck was,” he said. “It was kind of a strange play where he flubbed it and it spun off my stick. I was expecting that if it wasn’t a goal we’d be on the power play, but that’s the way it goes.”
Bylsma challenged the call on the ice but was overruled.
“I’m not sure I really have the ability to challenge a no-goal call,” he said. “I did anyway. He made that call on the ice, that there was contact. I’m not really sure they can overturn that with a review but with 4 minutes left in the game I was going to take every opportunity to try to do it.”
Later in the third period, with just under a minute remaining, Holtby preserved the shutout by stretching out his left arm to stop what appeared to be a sure goal by Evander Kane at the side of the net.
“Usually when I get it up over his pad it goes in, but he made a great save,” Kane said. “I haven't been robbed like that in a while."
“It was kind of a broken play,” Holtby said. “It ended up in his body so I knew I had a bit of time to push and get over there and try to take away where shooters usually shoot the puck and it went in the glove, luckily.”