- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2013

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.

The Capitals have had their Stanley Cup dreams dashed by a hot goalie in previous seasons, so Holtby’s performance Thursday resonated.

“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.  

Capitals coach Adam Oates, however, pointed to Holtby’s moment of brilliance one minute into the second period.

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.

Oates believed Holtby’s poise in that sequence stemmed from his calm after the Rangers took the lead with 3:16 left in the first period.

“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.”

His defense helped at key moments Thursday. When Rangers forward Rick Nash slapped at a rebound in the crease in the third period, Alzner was there to put a body on him and help clear the puck.

And Holtby’s luck evened out when Hagelin hit the post on a two-on-one with 10 minutes remaining in the game and the Capitals protecting a 2-goal lead.

Holtby punctuated the victory with a twisting save with four minutes to play. He snared John Moore’s wrist shot with his glove, but the force of the shot seemed to cause him to spin. He pinned his glove against the right post, and a video review confirmed it was no goal.

Afterward, Holtby stood at his locker upbeat from the victory but with the full understanding it will take more to win this series.

“It’s all about your team when it comes to the playoffs,” he said. “A goaltender’s stats are all team stats. We’re off to a good start, but we’re far from saying it has been a successful ride.”

• Rich Campbell can be reached at rcampbell@washingtontimes.com.

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