The first and only time the puck crossed Braden Holtby’s goal line Thursday night was a fluke. Such aberrations count on the scoreboard as any other goal, but they don’t necessarily affect a goaltender’s confidence the same.
So after New York Rangers forward Carl Hagelin opened the scoring in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with a wrap-around shot that redirected off Washington Capitals defenseman John Erskine’s skate and into the goal, Holtby shrugged it off.
“It’s almost easier to recover mentally because you know there’s nothing you can do, so it’s easy to move forward,” Holtby said. “We’re confident we can come back from bounces like that.”
He proceeded to stop all 29 shots he faced the rest of the game, and the Capitals’ offense matched that production in Washington’s 3-1 win. It was a promising start to Holtby’s second career playoff appearance and an extension of how well he played during the Capitals’ late-season run to the Southeast Division championship.
“Everybody knows you need a great goalie performance to win the Cup,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “He’s calm. He plays the puck well. He makes all the easy saves, all the hard saves. It’s pretty impressive to see.”
Any search for a turning point in Game 1 could involve several gritty sequences by Washington’s defense. Killing a five-on-three disadvantage for 56 seconds in the second period and the ensuing 1:04 of five-on-four is a good place to start.
Hagelin intercepted Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom’s pass in New York’s zone and skated in from center ice on a short-handed breakaway. Hagelin tried to beat Holtby with a forehand shot, but Holtby steered it aside with his blocker.
“To me, he didn’t look rattled at all by it,” Oates said. “He didn’t fight the puck at all tonight. He looked pretty much in control.”
This postseason is such an important measure for Holtby’s growth because he forged his way into the lineup during last year’s playoffs. He entered them with only a quarter of season’s worth of NHL experience, but saved 93.5 percent of the shots he faced in 14 games, helping the Capitals to within one win over the Rangers from the conference finals.
Now the 23-year-old is more experienced and proven. He has earned his teammates’ confidence.
“His play is a sign of the way he prepares off the ice and what a character guy he is,” defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “And I think everybody got a taste of that last year in the playoffs the way he competes and battles.”