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Screen plays torment Capitals’ goaltenders

Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth stuck with traffic in front of net

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Braden Holtby is tasked with stopping a fair share of breakaways and odd-man rushes. But those aren't the scoring chances that the Washington Capitals goaltender fears.

"Anytime there's a deflection opportunity or a screen, it's obviously difficult. Those probably account for most of the goals that go in, and people don't realize that," Holtby said. "As a goaltender, when I think of scoring chances, those are the toughest."

Through their first nine games, the Caps allowed nine goals on deflections or screens. It's a product of opponents making traffic a priority but also defensemen's mistakes in front and Holtby's and Michal Neuvirth's inability to see shots.

"Definitely every team is different and every team has a different guy for the screen," Neuvirth said. "You've got to battle through and try to find the puck. And if you don't see it, you've got to be in a good position."

Coach Adam Oates said the Caps are trying to minimize those kinds of goals. They're not ones you can blame on the goalies, but there are details of the game that go awry to cause them.

While the conventional wisdom is that defensemen should just do a better job of clearing out the front of the net, assistant Tim Hunter said it's not that easy.

"A lot of people don't understand," Hunter said. "They think, 'Well the goal goes in and there was one of the other team's bodies at the net and he didn't get cleared out. ... It's pretty hard the way players play now and the size of them to actually knock a guy out from the front of the net. It just doesn't happen anymore."

In the 6-3 loss Sunday to the Pittsburgh Penguins, though, Caps defensemen could have prevented a couple of deflection goals. John Carlson couldn't tie up Chris Kunitz's stick in front on one, and Jeff Schultz couldn't box out Matt Cooke on another.

"There's times to be more physical, just a little bit of reads on that, and we haven't had a lot of practice time," Oates said. "So we're trying to get a little bit in without wearing the guys out. And it's tough because you don't want a guy to block a shot that [makes him] sore."

It comes down to positioning more than anything else.

And that's a good thing for the Caps, who, aside from the suspended John Erskine, don't have many big, pile-moving defensemen.

"It's a bit of a cat-and-mouse game," Hunter said. "And the best teams are the teams that engage the other D and then they look for second and third opportunities.

"The teams that think they can just slink in behind the D, hang out and hopefully the puck gets there, it's not basketball. The puck doesn't drop out of the sky on your stick anymore. It has to go through people to get to you, and if you're always on the outside hoping the puck gets to you, you'll never see it."

Several times this season, Caps goaltenders haven't seen shots coming their way. It was a major problem for Holtby, especially in the 6-3 season-opening loss at the Tampa Bay Lightning. Holtby's numbers (4.52 goals-against average and .862 save percentage) look worse than his play because of a lot of what he called "scrambly" hockey at Tampa Bay.

Getting beat on deflections and screens, Holtby said, is easier to shake off because there's not much a goalie can do. But after giving up 18 goals in four starts, the 23-year-old is finding it difficult not to get down on himself.

"It's hard not to get frustrated," he said. "I don't remember any stretch in my whole career where so many goals have been going in, and honestly, so many goals that I feel I've played them right. It's a weird time, but I'm a believer in the process and everything equals out.

"It just happens to be that you know, those deflections you're talking about, 8 times out of 10, those are saves, and right now they're times that they aren't."

Holtby said it's "not humanly possible to be able to react" to tips when they come from in-close. Goalies flying blind have to hope they're in the perfect position.

"It's hard when you don't see shots, but you've got to battle through and try to find the puck. And if you don't find it, you've got to be at least on the top [of the] crease," Neuvirth said. "If you're lucky, the puck will hit you."

Or, if the goalies are even luckier, their teammates in front of them can do something about it. The Caps have been working on boxing-out drills in practice in an effort to cut down on those kinds of goals.

Technique is big, but it's also a mentality.

"You just got to be intense in front of the net, making sure that you know where you are," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "Because when there's two guys battling in front of the net, there's more of a screen than just one guy. So you got to be conscious of that as well."

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