NEW YORK — A few New York Rangers fans seemed blissfully unaware of what was about to happen to their team Saturday night when they started chanting "Holtby sucks" early on.
Braden Holtby did not.
Instead, the 22-year-old goaltender spun his best performance of this season for the Washington Capitals, brushing off any doubt that he could be the playoff starter by making 35 saves in a 4-1 rout.
Afterward, the same brash confidence that he showed in beating the Rangers came out when asked if he thought he was ready to lead the Caps in the playoffs.
"I don't think there was ever a question about that. If I did question it, we're in trouble," Holtby said. "This is what's happened with our team right now is that the two top goalies are out with injuries. And we can't complain about it anyway. Myself and our team, I can see by the way that they played today and know that they're going to battle through it and do everything we can."
Holtby did everything he could Saturday night, making up for mistakes by his defensemen and ensuring the Caps would pick up the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and a showdown with the Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins.
It helped that Holtby had a lead to work with before he even saw a shot and was handed a two-goal cushion just 2:18 in. But he was poised early when the pucks started flying his way.
"He's a confident kid. He's a winner," coach Dale Hunter said. "He wants to play hard for us, and tonight, he played well."
Twice when Rangers sniper Marian Gaborik turned defensemen into pylons, Holtby was there with a clutch stop. When Carl Hagelin and Brandon Prust got back-to-back, short-handed chances in the third period, Holtby came up huge.
On Prust's attempt, he left his net to poke-check the puck away. It was a gutsy move for Holtby to go all out, even with a three-goal lead, and it took Dennis Wideman getting back on the goal line to make a save, but it worked.
"You have to be there and answer the bell," Holtby said. "You never want to give up chances, especially two in the same kill that late in the game. That's something we'll work on. But at the same time that's my job to make up for those mistakes, and today I did it."
Holtby was the most valuable just when it looked like the Caps put the game out of reach. They let off the gas a little, and the Rangers pressed. He didn't crack.
"I think he was sharp all game today, especially in the second period when we kind of stopped playing after 3-0 lead," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "It's good for him before the playoffs to feel comfortable and feel lots of shots and be in the game."
Holtby wasn't just in the game. He was the game. That's great for the Caps with the playoffs coming up and Holtby the de facto option with Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth injured.
Saturday, he looked like much more than a fall-back plan.
"The guys in this room have complete confidence in him, and he doesn't have to prove it to anybody else, just know that the guys in this room are behind him," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "He stood tall tonight; we feel that he's a proven NHL goalie already even though he hasn't been here all season, and going into the playoffs here. If he's going to be our starter, then we're excited especially with the performance he put forth tonight."
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