Braden Holtby knew it was Alexander Semin coming in on a breakaway.
“He’s not a hard guy to pick up on the ice, wherever he is,” Holtby said.
But the young Washington Capitals goaltender was only Semin’s teammate for a short time. He didn’t have years of experience against the Carolina Hurricanes winger to draw from on what to expect.
Holtby just relied on his instincts.
“Any really skilled player like that, you have to be as patient as you can,” he said. “I don’t think he shot it exactly where he wanted it to, but, yeah, I just tried to be patient and it hit me.”
Holtby’s short-handed breakaway save on Semin 2:55 into the game was arguably the biggest play of the Caps’ 3-0 victory Tuesday night at Verizon Center. Naturally the goals by Nicklas Backstrom, John Erskine and John Carlson were nice, but had Semin scored early, everything could have changed.
“That’s a game-changer right there,” defenseman Tom Poti said. “They go up 1-0 it’s a different game. It was nice when you make that save, and he played great the rest of the night, too.”
Psychologically, the Caps needed Holtby to make that stop. They were on the power play at the time, and the buzz around Semin’s return had been building for a couple of days.
“Obviously fitting that that guy gets the breakaway,” coach Adam Oates said.
It would’ve been especially deflating given the Caps’ strong start, which included right wing Joel Ward drawing a penalty. Then something went wrong, and Hurricanes captain Eric Staal and Semin were all alone at the Washington blue line.
“For mishaps like that and for him to go on a breakaway, we didn’t want to be down, for sure,” Ward said. “I thought we’ve been working pretty hard the last couple days. We’ve been looking forward to this game, especially a divisional game, and to be down like that on a breakaway is tough.”
The Caps needed a hero, and Holtby managed to fill that role well. The crowd roared, and players were re-energized.
“I was pretty happy. I don’t have any bad blood against [Semin] or anything like that, but obviously you don’t want to come into here and score,” Carlson said. “We had a good few first shifts, but once we had that breakdown and he stopped that, I think everyone on the bench felt the same way.”
That was Holtby’s fourth save of 33 on the night as he picked up his second shutout of the season. Stonewalling Semin set the tone.
“You know that your goalie’s in it when he makes a huge save like that on a great player like Semin,” Poti said. “We know he’s in it and he’s going to be fighting for us all night.”