NEW YORK | The dam was bound to burst on Braden Holtby.
There was only so much the young Washington Capitals goaltender could do Sunday night against the New York Rangers. Turning away one quality scoring chance after another, he put together a vintage performance circa spring 2012 when he blossomed as a playoff hero.
“You know he’s not going to be able to make every single one of them,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “He made more than enough to try and win us the game tonight.”
Holtby couldn’t control the Caps’ offense, which failed to cash in on its opportunities. And there was little if anything the 23-year-old could do the two times the Rangers beat him.
It was yet another flash of Holtby’s brilliance, but the 2-1 loss at Madison Square Garden was a tough lesson for the Caps about giving up too much in the defensive zone and not scoring on the other end.
“He played great. We want to score goals, we want to give him support,” left wing Wojtek Wolski said. “We had a ton of chances; we just didn’t capitalize.”
This defeat snapped Holtby and Washington’s winning streak at three and kept the Caps in the basement of the Eastern Conference. But it didn’t snap Holtby’s belief in himself after a superb, 38-save performance.
“Over the course of a season obviously you want to win, that’s the main thing,” he said. “But if you start looking into results too much it can diminish your confidence sometimes. Obviously you’re going to look at video, see if I’ve made mistakes in other points of the game. But sometimes the other team, you’ve got to give them credit.”
With the season almost a third of the way over, these were two valuable points that Holtby almost stole from a team billed as a preseason Stanley Cup favorite. Instead, the Caps were left to rue blown chances, like two by Wolski, and at least one ill-timed penalty, by Karl Alzner that led to Derek Stepan’s game-winner.
“I still think we could’ve played a lot better,” coach Adam Oates said. “We obviously did some good things, but we took too many penalties and it ended up costing us. Our penalty killing’s been better, but it ended up still costing us.”
What ultimately cost the Caps was an inability to beat Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist several times from point-blank range. Wolski lamented that he and his teammates had a “ton of opportunities” that didn’t go in.
“I just missed the net twice, and there was two great opportunities that should be goals,” Wolski said.
But the Rangers tilted the ice for most of the night, forcing Holtby to be sharp at every turn.
“That’s definitely the best I’ve seen him this year,” forward Eric Fehr said. “It could’ve been pretty lopsided for a while there, and he kept us in it.”
Holtby didn’t make too many 10-bell saves, even if the volume of stops piled up. Turning away Jeff Halpern and Ryan Callahan three times in seven seconds when the Rangers were buzzing short-handed topped his highlight reel. Stopping Carl Hagelin from point-blank range wasn’t bad, either.
“He plays well against us, that’s for sure,” Stepan said. “Throughout the game we kept trying to get bodies in front of him, and he did a good job of fighting through that.”
The praise for Holtby came from all corners of a solemn visitors locker room. “It’s as well as I’ve seen him play,” Brouwer said. Center Nicklas Backstrom called Holtby “outstanding.”
Oates called his goaltender’s game “pretty good.” It almost seemed like he and his players expected this.
“Amazing. I’d describe him as Braden,” Alzner said. “That’s the way he plays. … That’s exactly the way we need him to play every night it’s always going to give us a good chance to win.”
Holtby, not bothered as much by the goals that weren’t his fault as much as from the loss in general, brushed off the kind words.
“I don’t know if we gave up any more scoring chances than we usually do,” he said. “It was just a lot of shots in the first couple periods, and that’s my job to stay in it and give us a chance to win.”
It was a job Holtby did almost to perfection Sunday night in New York. It just wasn’t enough.
“We really wanted to win one for him,” Fehr said, “but they played a great game.”