Holtby has been lights out for Capitals

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Heading into this season, Braden Holtby‘s calling card was consistency. Maybe he didn’t churn out the absolute best campaign every time, but in winning at least 41 games and generating at least a .923 save percentage from 2014-15 to 2016-17, Holtby put in elite work like clockwork for the Washington Capitals.

The 2017-18 season, meanwhile, has been more like a roller coaster ride.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division once again, but sometimes that success came despite Holtby. He managed 34 wins, yet Holtby struggled with a backup-level .907 save percentage, confessing to fatigue when things really slipped.

Things hit their lowest point toward the end of 2017-18, as impressive backup Philipp Grubauer outright won the Capitals’ starting job, suiting up as the top goalie for Washington’s first two playoff games against Columbus. Of course, both of those games ended in losses, and ultimately opened the door for Holtby to redeem himself.

So far, Holtby’s done more than that. Rather than merely grabbing the starting job, the 28-year-old is looking a lot like the elite goalie we’ve almost come to expect in a time when goalie output can be downright erratic.

Holtby stepped in for Grubauer in Game 2, giving up a goal on eight shots as the Blue Jackets won 5-4 in overtime. Things have picked up since Holtby was in net from the start, which really makes sense since the Capitals netminder is known for his focus.

The Capitals won three straight games to take their current 3-2 series lead, and Holtby’s been outstanding, holding up to the pressure of having little room for error. Two of the past three wins have been in overtime, while only one of Holtby’s appearances didn’t involve a game going beyond regulation (five of the series’ six games hit OT overall).

So far through four games and three starts, Holtby’s stopped 102 out of 109 shots for a splendid save percentage of .936.

Maybe the standout moments came during the third period of Game 5. While a deft Oliver Bjorkstrand deflection eluded Holtby early on in the third, Holtby was the reason Washington was able to survive into overtime, as the Blue Jackets generated an absurd 16-1 shots on goal advantage during that span.

It’s easy to consider the Capitals’ history of playoff disappointments and assume that Holtby’s failed to convert regular season brilliance to strong postseason goaltending, yet Holtby’s long been a dependable presence when the games matter the most.

Despite a 32-31 career playoff record, Holtby’s given the Capitals a chance to win on most nights, sporting a fantastic .932 save percentage so far during his playoff career. That’s the best mark for goalies who’ve played in at least 30 postseason games since 2011-12, and the gap widens when you zoom out to netminders who’ve played in at least 50 during that same span.

Playing at such a high level clearly takes its toll, and you wonder if recent setbacks might serve as a blessing in disguise for Holtby.

Most directly, he got a breather down the stretch, which is significant considering the workload he’s carried the past few seasons.

Beyond that, watching playoff games from the bench had to light a fire under him, possibly reminding him of the earlier days of his career when little was certain. After all, Holtby had to earn his spot as a fourth-round pick (93rd overall in 2008).

Goalies might be creatures of habit who prefer getting the most reps and knowing when their starts are coming, but perhaps it’s human nature to fall into a routine and not be at your very best, particularly when you’re serving as a workhorse goalie.

Whatever the case may be, Holtby’s playing some of his best hockey, and that’s making the Capitals a tough team to beat. If the Blue Jackets want to avoid elimination tonight, they’ll need to get the best of Holtby. That appears to be a far tougher task in April than it seemed to be mere months ago.

Game 6 airs on CNBC at 7:30 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Connor McDavid ruined the Bruins’ overtime

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Two nights ago Connor McDavid single-handedly stole a win for the Edmonton Oilers when he put the team on his back and helped it overcome a three-goal third period deficit against the Winnipeg Jets.

He helped do it all again on Thursday night in the Oilers’ home opener.

McDavid finished with another two-point night in the 3-2 overtime win against the Boston Bruins, assisting on the Oilers’ second goal in regulation and the winner in overtime. That gives him 11 points on the season. An impressive number on its own after only five games, and even more so when you remember the Oilers, even after Thursday’s win, have only scored 13 goals as a team. It was the play that McDavid made in overtime on Thursday that is going to steal the show in this win because he completely ruined the Bruins’ chances at both ends of the ice.

Have a look at the entire sequence that begins with McDavid picking off a stretch pass for Patrice Bergeron, dancing around Brad Marchand at the blue line, and then freezing the lone defender back and the goaltender to set up Leon Draisaitl for the game-winning goal.

Just look at this effort.

That is the best player in the world playing like it.

The Edmonton Oilers are now 3-2-0 on the season and they have McDavid to thank for most of it.

If he does not pick that pass off in the neutral zone, Bergeron walks in alone for a breakaway. Just like that, it was going the other way.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Toronto’s early goalie pull backfires with Kadri own goal

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One of the big early trends in the NHL this season is coaches opting to pull their goalie earlier than usual in an effort to get a late game-tying goal. Traditionally, teams would only go for the extra attacker in the final minute when down by a goal, and maybe go with two minutes if they were down by more.

Now, teams seem to be going for the extra attacker with two to three minutes to play (or more) when down by just a single goal. It is not exactly a new strategy — Patrick Roy used to do it all the time with the Colorado Avalanche — but it is definitely catching on more and more.

On Thursday night in Toronto with the Maple Leafs trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0, coach Mike Babcock elected to pull Frederik Andersen with three minutes to play in search of the equalizer. It did not work. Not only did the Maple Leafs fail to score, but Nazem Kadri accidentally scored an own goal from the neutral zone when this happened.

That is unfortunate. Especially when you consider Kadri is still searching for his first goal of the season.

Well … first goal into the correct net.

The goal ended up being credited to Evgeni Malkin, his second goal of the game, since he was the most recent Penguins player to touch the puck.

Babcock would pull Andersen again right after that, resulting in Kris Letang adding a more traditional empty net goal for the Penguins (the 100th goal of his career) to give them a 3-0 win.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Watch Blue Jackets score two ridiculous highlight reel goals against Flyers

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Say this for the Philadelphia Flyers: Their games are never boring.

Their combination of skilled forwards, young defense, and perpetually shaking goaltending situation can produce some wild, back-and-forth games where you can expect a lot of chances, a lot of goals, and a lot of madness.

Sometimes that means they will do incredible things.

Sometimes that means somebody will do incredible things against them. On Thursday night in Columbus there was a lot of the latter happening.

First, we have Anthony Duclair scoring what might be the best goal of the young season with an incredible individual effort included him falling to the ice, somehow managing to stickhandle through a phone booth, then getting a shot on goal while falling to the ice and beating Flyers goalie Calvin Pickard.

Columbus is the fourth organization that Duclair has played for in his young career as he still tries to find a consistent role. He is obviously a talented player and has shown a lot of potential at different times throughout his career, and this is almost certainly the signature play of his career to this point.

Shortly after that, though, the Blue Jackets allowed Philadelphia to regain the lead on a Sean Couturier goal that was mostly just a giant whiff by Sergei Bobrovsky. His teammates managed to help him a bit in the second period, specifically forward Cam Atkinson, who scored a pair of goals in the first five minutes of the period.

The first one was off a nice looking play set up by Artemi Panarin.

The second one was this, that saw him fly in and dangle around Pickard to give the Blue Jackets their first lead of the game. It looks even better on the replays.

Nick Foligno would add another goal for the Blue Jackets not long after.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Red Wings GM Holland isn’t ‘looking over his shoulder’ regarding Yzerman

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One way or another, Steve Yzerman’s future as an NHL GM is on delay for a season, as he’s technically still working for the Tampa Bay Lightning. If another team publicly acknowledged pursuing the Hall of Fame player and top-notch executive, they’d likely be guilty of tampering.

So, take Stevie Y-related comments with a grain of salt, whether they’re coming from people involved with the Seattle expansion franchise, Detroit Red Wings, or anyone else who might be linked to Yzerman.

It’s still worth noting those comments, though, so soak in what Red Wings GM Ken Holland said when The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell asked him about possibly “looking over his shoulder” at Yzerman.

“I’ve been a manager in the league for 23 years,” Holland said. “I’ve won three Stanley Cups, five Presidents’ Trophies.* I don’t look over my shoulder.”

Should Holland look over his shoulder, or – considering the temporary limbo involved – in his rear-view mirror at Yzerman?

Logically speaking, you’d think maybe he should. Yzerman didn’t leave his post with Tampa Bay merely to placate another promising executive in Julien BriseBois, who replaced Yzerman right before the season began.

We’ve seen some succession plans in other NHL franchises that would make a lot of sense for the Red Wings, at least hypothetically speaking.

Glen Sather, another long-time executive with many skins on his wall (and cigars in his vault), made way for a younger GM in Jeff Gorton as the Rangers entered a new phase. It would make a lot of sense for Holland to essentially “move up the food chain” with a new title in Detroit, while Yzerman takes the reins as the actual GM.

(There are also less-friendly transitions to note, like with the Capitals, Coyotes, and other franchises that transitioned to a younger GM.)

Of course, the Red Wings march to the beat of their own drum, likely arguing that their way has often been a successful way. The consensus around the hockey world is that, while Holland has nodded to a rebuild at times, Detroit’s also been pretty stubborn to fully commit. That same stubbornness could conceivably keep Holland in power, even if it might be wiser to move on, particularly with a GM who’s proven to be as shrewd as Yzerman was with Tampa Bay.

During the darker moments in Detroit, there’ve been times when it felt like Yzerman was the one that got away.

There’s also the possibility that Yzerman would like to see if he can meet or exceed what Vegas GM George McPhee accomplished with an expansion franchise by building the Seattle team.

As appealing as it would be for Yzerman to swoop back into Detroit and save the day, just about any GM – not to mention plenty of sports fans who’ve daydreamed while playing “franchise” or “GM” modes – would delight in building a team from scratch. There’s something to be said, after all, for not having to deal with lingering mistakes from the previous GM; the Red Wings certainly have some shaky contracts remaining on their salary structure.

Maybe Ken Holland doesn’t feel threatened. Perhaps he’s just deflecting since the Red Wings can’t really show their hand now, anyway.

If the Red Wings are smart, they absolutely pursue Yzerman once they’re allowed to, even if it means ruffling Holland’s feathers.

* – Sportsnet indicates that Holland actually won four Presidents’ Trophies. Either way, the man is seasoned executive.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.