Braden Holtby no longer NHL’s tough luck postseason loser

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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.

Related: Ovechkin overcame plenty of heartbreak to become Stanley Cup champion]

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.

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.

Bruins’ David Backes takes skate to face, returns

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BOSTON (AP) Boston Bruins forward David Backes rushed himself off the ice Tuesday night after taking a skate blade to the face late in the first period but returned at the start of the second and finished the game.

Backes pushed Oliver Ekman-Larsson near the side of the net and the Arizona defenseman went to the ice, kicking up his left skate on the way down. It caught Backes in the face, and he went down before skating on his own quickly to the bench and out the tunnel.

Backes returned and won the faceoff to start the second period. He did not speak to reporters during the open locker room period but told The Boston Globe as he left the building he had a cut on the side of his nose that required a few stitches and some ointment.

“It’s always scary when your teammate takes a skate to the face, or really anywhere,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said after scoring twice and adding an assist in the 4-3 victory. “He’s a little prettier now and no worse for wear.”

Backes required 18 stitches to close a cut on his leg after a game against Tampa Bay in March.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Which teams are likely to make moves before Holiday Freeze?

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We’re exactly one week away from the NHL’s holiday roster freeze. Teams won’t be able to make a move between Dec. 19 at 11:59 pm ET and Dec. 28 at 12:01 am ET, which means there could be some fireworks between now and the 19th. So, which teams are most likely to make a move before next week? Let’s take a look.

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers have already fired a general manager, so you’d have to think that the next step is to acquire some help that will improve their roster immediately. It’s been a disappointing year in Philly. After making the playoffs last season, they now find themselves one point away from the basement of the Eastern Conference. Sure, they could use some help between the pipes (no kidding), but they could also look to acquire a steady defenseman to compliment some of their younger players on the blue line. Their 12-13-3 record has them five points behind the Islanders for third place in the Metropolitan Division.

Minnesota Wild: Prior to last night’s huge 7-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Wild had been floundering. Does one win change that? Probably not. Charlie Coyle‘s name has come up in trade rumors a lot lately, and you’d have to wonder if he’d be the one to go if GM Paul Fenton wanted to shake up his roster. Minnesota is still close enough to the playoffs that a big move could propel them back into a top three spot in the division or a wild card spot. Fenton still hasn’t made a major trade since taking over, so this could be his time to shine.

Carolina Hurricanes: Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon is already sick of seeing his team not make it to the playoffs. They clearly have a need up front. The ‘Canes have to find a way to add some scoring help (Jeff Skinner would look great in a Hurricanes jersey right now). The good thing about Carolina, is that they have an abundance of talent on defense, which means they could sacrifice some of that to get a scoring forward. The Hurricanes are two points behind the Islanders for the final playoff spot in the Metro.

Boston Bruins: Despite the fact that they’ve been hit hard by the injury bug this season, the Bruins have found a way to stay in a playoff spot. Getting healthy would help, but the quickest fix might just be for GM Don Sweeney to make a trade before Christmas. Some depth scoring would certainly help. The Bruins are probably the team from this list that’s in the best shape, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to stay quiet on the trade front.

St. Louis Blues: Doug Armstrong has to do something to get his team back on track, or it could end up costing him his job. The Blues made some significant trades this off-season, but that hasn’t translated into victories. St. Louis could use help all over their roster. Their goaltending hasn’t been good enough, their defense has been in shambles all year and their top scorers haven’t been performing. This might be a do-or-die situation for Armstrong.

Florida Panthers: The Panthers missed the playoffs by just one point last season, which means they have to make the postseason this year. Unfortunately for them, Roberto Luongo has been banged up, again, in 2018-19. Could they be in the market for a goalie? It’s clear that they can’t just keep rolling with James Reimer if they want to play games deep into April. And relying on Luongo to stay healthy is a risky proposition.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Jim Rutherford has already made a couple of moves (he acquired Tanner Pearson from the Kings and Marcus Pettersson from the Ducks), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t willing to pull the trigger on a trade again. Even though they’ve been playing better as of late, the Pens still find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture right now. Maybe they just wait it out, but a move is never out of the question for Rutherford.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Murray close to returning to Penguins’ net

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday Night Hockey at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Another injury to Matt Murray once again complicated matters in the Penguins’ net. But as they did last season, the duty to help keep things afloat rested on the goalie pads of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith.

Since Murray exited the lineup with a nagging lower-body injury that he tried to play through, it’s been DeSmith taking the No. 1 reins and helping the Penguins earn points in eight of his nine starts. A .920 even strength save percentage has also helped them stay in the Eastern Conference playoff mix when things were looking down just a short while ago.

Complicating matters regarding Murray’s return has been the lack of practice time. With games just about every other day, the Penguins don’t have more than one full day off until the Christmas break, a period where no practices are allowed. Factor in travel days as well and it’s been tough to get him regular work.

“Logistically it makes it a little bit more of a challenge because ideally we’d like to get these guys into a team setting before we put them back into game scenarios,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan after Monday’s morning skate on Long Island. “In this instance, based on the realities of our schedule, that’s going to be a little bit more difficult.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Murray participated in a full practice Tuesday at United Center as the Penguins prepared for Wednesday’s game against the Blackhawks. He’s been skating for a week and did not rule himself out of starting in Chicago, citing a good amount of progression in his recovery.

“The thing I was dealing with was lingering and getting worse and worse, but still not enough to come out,” he said. “Eventually it got bad enough where you just need some time to rest it. I’m not going to use it as an excuse. I was sore, but it was nothing to come out of play. I was playing with it for a few weeks and it was fine. I just tweaked it one day. It didn’t hinder many parts of my game. It’s a specific place. Just giving it time to heal is the biggest thing.”

The fact that Murray has missed so much time to fully heal and not continue to play through injury is encouraging to Sullivan, who is confident the 24-year-old netminder’s season will only improve now.

“Sometimes when you have the opportunity to get away from it a little bit and get a fresh start, I think from a mental standpoint it can be refreshing for a player,” said Sullivan. “Physically for Matt, he’s going to be in a much better position to be at his best.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Ference rips Oilers; Barkov’s incredible penalty differential

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Even though he’s 33 years old, Alex Ovechkin remains as productive as he’s ever been. This ESPN story came out before he scored three goals during Tuesday’s win over Detroit. (ESPN)

• Former Oilers captain Andrew Ference ripped some of the players on his old team partying and not taking their jobs seriously. (Edmonton Journal)

• Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon might be relatively new to the league, but he’s got some interesting ideas regarding his team and the NHL. (Toronto Star)

• After going through waivers earlier this season, Scott Darling has another chance to prove himself with the ‘Canes. (News & Observer)

• Golden Knights fans shouldn’t be worried about the amount of hockey Marc-Andre Fleury is playing right now. (SinBin.Vegas)

• Not only has Aleksander Barkov not taken a penalty all season, he also leads the league in penalties drawn. (TSN)

• Legendary play-by-play voice Bob Cole is retiring after this season. His final game will be a classic matchup between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens. (Sportsnet)

• Here’s a list of 27 players that will have no-movement clauses heading into the 2021 Expansion Draft. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Buffalo Bills defensive back Tre White can do it all!

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.