WASHINGTON — The Washington Capitals weren’t ready for their season to come to an end.
By playing what might have been their most complete game of the playoffs, they were able to force a Game 7 (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in the Eastern Conference final with a 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday night, picking up their first home win of the series.
While the Capitals were playing a relentlessly physical game and getting big performances from T.J. Oshie (two goals) and Devante Smith-Pelly, it was goaltender Braden Holtby playing what might have been his best and biggest game of the season to help drive the win and extend their season to a winner-take-all game in Tampa.
After the game Capitals coach Barry Trotz called Holtby “the backbone” of their team, and there were times in Game 6 where they needed him to be exactly that.
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While he didn’t have to face a ton of shots (Tampa managed just 24 shots) he was still tested by a powerful Lightning attack and needed to be called upon to make some massive saves to record his first shutout of the season, a rather stunning stat considering he led the league in shutouts a year ago with nine.
“The only reason is it is good is you know you won,” said Holtby when asked about not recording a shutout this season until Monday. “Aside from that it’s just another statistic for you guys to write about. For us it is just that ‘W’ that matters.”
Well, they got that ‘W’ in large part because of Holtby’s play. Even though they ended up with a three-goal edge on the scoreboard at the end of the night, it could have easily shifted in another direction numerous times.
With the game was still scoreless in the second period, for example, he made a huge pad save on Anthony Cirelli when he broke in all alone on an odd-man rush.
In the third period, he helped preserve what was at the time a one-goal lead when he made an incredible glove save on a wide open Nikita Kucherov as he flew down the middle of the ice after coming off the bench on a perfectly timed line change.
Holtby downplayed that save after the game.
“I think that save probably looks better than it actually is,” Holtby said.” There are some that are more difficult than that. I think it was just the positioning and where the puck was. I was just trying to stay in the moment, focus on the puck, and make the save.”
It turned out to be a massive save because just a few minutes later Smith-Pelly delivered what was probably the knockout punch of the game when he scored his fourth goal of the playoffs to give the Capitals a two-goal lead.
Until that second goal was scored the Capitals had spent most of the period leaning on Holtby to stand tall and he was more than up to the task.
Overall this has been a bizarre season for Holtby.
In terms of his overall statistics it was probably his worst one since he became the Capitals’ starting goalie. After a so-so start, he struggling mightily over the last two months and then ended up on the bench for Games 1 and 2 of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in place of Philipp Grubauer.
But after Grubauer struggled and the Capitals were facing a two-game deficit, Holtby reclaimed his starting spot and has done what he has done throughout his career in the playoffs — give his team a chance just about every single night.
Given how well Holtby has played in his career in the postseason it is downright staggering that his team hasn’t had more success in the playoffs. His career save percentage in the playoffs is the second best all-time and he’s rarely, if ever, had a poor showing over an entire series. It has just always come down to there at times being a goalie at the other end of the ice that has been just a little bit better.
Goaltending has been the big story of this series and even if it’s oversimplifying things to say, the team with the best goalie has won every game.
After dropping three games in a row and sending their season to the brink of what could have been another soul-crushing end, the Capitals needed their goalie to be the better one on Monday night.
Now they need him to do it one more time on Wednesday.