The dominant storyline in the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup win is, obviously, centered around Alex Ovechkin finally kicking down the championship door and silencing whatever critics he had left.
It is understandable.
Ovechkin is one of the game’s greatest all-time players and finally has the final accomplishment so many felt he needed to complete his resume as one of the NHL’s best. No matter how many goals he scored in the regular season or playoffs, no matter how much he produced or how many highlights he created there was always going to be that person rattling the cage about how he hadn’t yet won the Stanley Cup, whether that was his fault or not.
Those days are now, officially, gone.
He is not the only long-time member of the Capitals’ core that was probably long overdue for postseason success, so let’s talk about starting goaltender Braden Holtby, statistically speaking one of the best performing postseason goalies in NHL history.
Holtby’s story is in some ways even more incredible than Ovechin’s because Holtby plays the one position in the sport where a great performance can single-handedly drive team success in the playoffs. For almost his entire postseason career Holtby has played at that level for the Capitals.
The numbers are sparking. In some cases incredible.
Going back to the start of the 1960 playoffs Holtby’s .929 career postseason save percentage is the third best all-time (minimum 40 playoff games played), trailing only Tim Thomas’ .932 mark and Johnny Brower’s .931.
Until this season Holtby was the only goalie in the top-10 of that list, and one of only three in the top-25 (Curtis Joseph and Carey Price being the other two) that had never played in a Stanley Cup Final.
Fourteen of the top-25 had won at least one Stanley Cup.
Until this season, Holtby had not only never won a cup or been to the Final, he had never been out of the second round, a baffling fact considering how consistently great he has performed.
First, just look at his series-by-series performance since arriving in the NHL in 2012. Just look at the save percentages, particularly the ones in the loss column.
In only one postseason series in his career has he finished with a save percentage lower than .916. In only three of them has he been below .920, and oddly enough two of them were his past two series wins against Tampa Bay and Vegas this season. And even in that Tampa Bay series he pitched back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 with his team facing elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In the five series before this season that Holtby and the capitals had lost he had a combined save percentage of .924, and that includes the .887 clunker against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017. Those five series accounted for 34 games. Among active goalies that have appeared in at least 34 playoff games only four of them have a save percentage better than .924 (and yes, Holtby is one of them).
Again, those are his performances in the series that he lost.
It defies logic, and in a lot of ways Holtby, more than any other player on the Capitals (Ovechkin included), illustrates the team’s postseason frustrations prior to this season.
When you get that level of goaltending you are supposed to win. Or at least get closer to winning than the Capitals did. And it’s not just the overall series performances and results that were baffling. It was the individual games, including some of the potential knockout games and elimination games.
Prior to this season Holtby was on the losing end of four postseason games where he allowed just one goal. The only other active goalie that has lost that many is Henrik Lundqvist, who has lost four … in 128 career playoff games. Holtby has only played in 82.
In three of the five games where he was eliminated he allowed only two goals. One of the two games where he allowed more, a Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers where he surrendered five goals, came after he lost one of those aforementioned one-goal games in a potential knockout game in Game 6 of the series. In two of those elimination games his team was shutout. In another they scored just one goal.
Holtby was already one of the best goalies of his era. He has a Vezina Trophy and another year as the runner-up. He has a Jennings Trophy. He has numbers in both the regular season and playoffs that stack up with, or just flat out exceed, any of his peers.
But just like Ovechkin until he finally got his name on the Stanley Cup there was always going to be that crowd that completely disregarded it because they foolishly believed he couldn’t do it when it mattered most, ignoring the confluence of events independent of any one player that need to perfectly align for a team to win a championship.
It all finally happened this year, and after years of dominant play and tough-luck losses he too finally has the last accomplishment his resume was missing.