Braden Holtby did it with flair. Even routine glove saves were snared out of mid-air as the crowd went crazy.
Chants of “Holtby, Holtby” became the soundtrack as the Washington Capitals goaltender dazzled. But he didn’t exactly soak it in.
“Try and zone them out,” he said. “It’s great. It’s awesome to have that fan support. Not putting that down at all. But that can get your heart racing pretty quick if you let it. My job is to control my emotions and make sure I’m focusing on the next save.”
Always composed, the 22-year-old never once looked rattled by the pressure of the Boston Bruins’ attack and the possibility of falling into a deep hole in this first-round series.
As the Bruins fired rubber at him almost nonstop for long stretches, Holtby ignited the Verizon Center crowd and simultaneously kept the Caps in the game. The offense was limited, but enough, as Holtby stole Game 4 with a 2-1 victory over Boston that evens the series at two games apiece.
“Holts was great,” forward Brooks Laich said. “When you have a goaltender that smothers everything that’s thrown his way, it’s very calming to the rest of your team. … He was a stud.”
Holtby frustrated the Bruins, even if he didn’t want to let that creep into his mind. In doing so, he gave the Caps at least a puncher’s chance against the defending champs.
“In the playoffs you need to win at home; you need to win those big games in crucial times to be successful,” Holtby said. “That’s a big game for us, but it’s far from easy from now on. It’s a best of three now, but the games are going to get harder as we go on.”
But the series is all even because Holtby put on a show worthy of Caps playoff lore, making 44 saves. Doing so in entertaining fashion pumped up not only the fans but his teammates.
“I love watching that, and I think the best part about it is he makes a great glove save and drops the puck and leans on his post,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “He makes it look so easy.”
In the rare cases, Holtby allowed some juicy rebounds on pucks that bounced to the area in front of his crease. The Caps, however, did not allow a shot in the final seven-plus minutes, and Jay Beagle earned plenty of praise for blocking a Johnny Boychuk attempt in the waning seconds.
“The play of the game was Beagle’s block at the end there,” Holtby said. “By far, that’s a play where everyone goes, [we’re] thankful that he did that. That was the difference in the game.”
Long before that, Holtby made sure this was a game, stopping 13 of the Bruins’ 14 first-period shots with the ice tilted toward him.
But he did have a lead to play with for much of the first, thanks to Marcus Johansson’s goal on a two-on-one rush just 1:22 in. Brooks Laich made it all happen with a delayed pass that teed up Johansson to fire the puck past goalie Tim Thomas on the first shot of the game.
Even when Rich Peverley scored to break up the shutout, it was tough to blame Holtby, who looked almost superhuman all night. He again outdueled Thomas, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
“We know he’s a good goaltender. You have to give him credit, but I wouldn’t talk too much about him,” Bruins forward David Krejci said. “I think we just have to relax when we have a chance and just do what you do during the season. When you have a chance, don’t panic, just bury it, don’t think about. Think about the scoring chance and think about putting the puck in the net. Maybe we panicked too much I guess.”
It took an unbelievable snipe by Alexander Semin to get Holtby some much-needed goal support. On Washington’s third power-play opportunity of the game, he used a Zdeno Chara screen and played target practice by snapping one over Thomas’ left shoulder and into the top-right corner of the net.
Asked how many NHL players could hit that kind of shot, Laich deadpanned: “I don’t know. I’m just glad we have one that can.”
This performance, keyed by Holtby, ensures at least one more hockey game in the District this spring, and one more chance for chants of “Holtby” to fill the air.
Everyone knew how crucial this game was, especially recognizing the defending Stanley Cup champions’ killer instinct. So Holtby, who watched as the Bruins won it all last year, made sure they didn’t take a stranglehold on the series.
“Every time I’ve watched the playoffs, there’s kind of a burning in me, I think with every player, that they want to be there,” he said. “That they think they can get to that level. It’s just the start of the playoffs right now. I’m just trying to learn, try to improve and see how long we can go.”
• Stephen Whyno can be reached at email@example.com.
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