NEW YORK — His neck craned upward, Braden Holtby watched the past, present and future collide.
The goaltender had finally pulled himself up to his feet, spending what surely felt like an eternity face down in his own crease. A celebration raged around him, one he had not wished to attend, and as he skated out of his net, his teammates patting him on the shoulders in consolation, he leaned forward on his stick, rested his hands on the blade and began searching for answers.
There had been no more consistent performer for the Washington Capitals during the postseason than Holtby, whose downfall on Wednesday was the result of one hapless bounce. A rebound deposited into the net by Derek Stepan at 11:24 of overtime completed the New York Rangers’ comeback, giving them a 2-1 victory in a decisive Game 7 of the second-round series.
Holtby had been stellar all evening, finishing with 37 saves and making one tremendous stop after another. The massive video board hanging above center ice told no lies — as if the disk of vulcanized rubber left in the net wasn’t proof enough — and Holtby, his mind by now coming to terms with his team’s fate, doubled back to join the venerated handshake line.
“It hit something and went right to the guy,” Holtby explained later, his voice not much louder than a whisper. “I don’t know what I could do different.”
The Capitals were in position to advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in 17 years primarily on the shoulders of Holtby, who allowed two or fewer goals in nine of the 13 playoff games he played.
At one point midway through the series, he held the Rangers to one goal over a span of 192:12, aided by a 1-0 shutout in Game 5. His .944 save percentage tied for the highest among starting goalies in the postseason, and his 1.71 goals-against average left him second.
That, of course, was the Capitals’ problem: Those marks were equaled only by Holtby’s counterpart, the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, a perennial Vezina Trophy candidate.
“I think everybody has seen how Braden has been elevated as an elite goaltender in this league,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Great work by [goaltending coach] Mitch Korn. I think going head-to-head against a great goaltender like Lundqvist, he’ll just learn from that.”
The regulation goal, scored by Kevin Hayes at 6:22 of the second period, was one Holtby had little chance on. With the Rangers on the power play, Hayes took a feed from J.T. Miller that slipped between the Capitals’ Troy Brouwer and John Carlson and found the back door wide open, with the puck already across the goal line before Holtby could gain his footing.
Otherwise, Holtby turned aside quality chances all evening, making what may have been his greatest stop on a shorthanded breakaway by Rick Nash at 17:44 of the first period. Nash scooped the puck after a pass had been broken up by Stepan and raced the other way, with his attempt first skipping off Holtby’s stick before thudding off his pads.
Only minutes earlier, the goaltender turned aside a charging one-timer from Dan Girardi in the slot that was the result of a broken play. And, in overtime, Holtby withstood five shots on net, with a drive by Carl Hagelin at 4:35 of the extra period serving as the Rangers’ greatest chance until the winner.
“It’s tough, because we really wanted to get this one for him,” winger Joel Ward said. “He battled all year, especially in the playoffs. With how hard he worked, we really wanted to win and get one for him. He deserved a better fate than that.”
Holtby tied team records by playing in 73 games during the regular season and winning 41 of them, finishing with a career-best .923 save percentage and 2.22 goals-against average. He finished the season by starting 25 consecutive games and had nine shutouts, nearly equaling the 11 he posted during his first four seasons.
Set to become a restricted free agent this summer, Holtby will receive a modest pay raise rewarding him for emerging as one of the league’s better goalies. Trotz said Holtby is “turning into our DNA, if you will — great character, great work ethic, and that’s just going to make us stronger as an organization.”
But on Wednesday night, Holtby didn’t care about the future — or at least the reality of it. For him, the future included another month of hockey, handshakes in late June and lugging a 35-pound alloy through Lloydminster, Saskatchewan.
“We obviously feel we played good enough to win a series, but if you look at them, they played good enough to win a series,” Holtby said. “It’s tough to swallow. This group is special. We have a very special group. It’s unfortunate.”