- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Time and again, Braden Holtby has done his part to turn away pucks approaching the net, providing a lift to his Washington Capitals teammates and ensuring their collective success.

That was true on Monday, when Holtby made 24 saves and secured his second career postseason shutout, blanking the New York Rangers, 1-0, to give his team the advantage in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

What was different about that game, though, was that Holtby had quite a bit of help in stopping shots. The Capitals blocked 27 shots on Monday — more than in any of their previous nine playoff games, and nearly as many as the 30 shots on goal the Rangers mustered all evening.

Blocking shots is one thing, but preventing quality looks is another. The Capitals were able to do it all, denying the Rangers shooting lanes and sweeping aside any rebounds that may have tantalizingly dangled in front of the net.

And with the stakes so high — the Capitals could take a 3-1 lead in the second round for the first time since 1998, when they advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals — the all-in, anything-for-the-win mentality is starting to reverberate around the dressing room.

“I just look at the urgency of our players,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Some of the blocks probably don’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but I think [Monday] night, we had a couple big blocks from our forwards, too, in certain situations. Those are the ones that you really look for, and not just [weak blocks]. Not that they don’t matter, but they’re different than those.”

Of those 27 shots, defensemen accounted for 18 of them, with Matt Niskanen blocking seven, Carlson and Mike Green each stepping in front of five and one going off of Karl Alzner. Niskanen could have even had an eighth; the mere threat of a block, when he dove in front of Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle at 6:46 of the second period, forced Boyle to bypass a shot on the rush.

The other nine blocked shots were taken by forwards, with Nicklas Backstrom stopping four, Alex Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer each deflecting two. But the one that drilled Marcus Johansson in the chest at 7:24 of the third period may have been the most significant, as it disrupted a quality scoring chance by the Rangers and signaled, for the first time, that the Capitals may have the wherewithal to hang on for the shutout.

“We’re doing everything we can,” said Johansson, who blocked just 18 shots during the regular season and two others during the playoffs. “We can still do better, but it helps, too, when you know that the pucks that get through, you have one of the best guys in the league back there stopping the puck. It’s obviously something that we do. It’s a big part of the game to block shots and help out the goalie.”

With a battle raging in the left corner behind Holtby, the puck somehow squirted out toward the net, with the Rangers‘ Derek Stepan redirecting it to Kevin Hayes with a quick tap. As Hayes wheeled around the front of the crease, Johansson remained in pursuit, dipping to a near-split to stop the rookie’s shot attempt.

Johansson thought Hayes would try the backhand at the near post, but once Hayes held onto it, Johansson had no other recourse but to try to stop it with his body. By stretching out, Johansson denied Hayes the opportunity in front of the net, forcing the rookie to collect himself before taking a shot — and allowing Holtby to turn to the far post.

Hayes’ quick flick hit Johansson in the chest, but the scoring opportunity didn’t end there. The puck deflected back toward the left corner — where Holtby had just been standing — and the slightest of effort from the Rangers would have knotted the score. Instead, Green and Niskanen were able to pull it away from Carl Hagelin, who was practically standing on the goal line, and got it back to Johansson, who cleared the puck to a rousing ovation.

“You need a little bit of that,” coach Barry Trotz said. “But the one thing is, if the commitment is there, you’re going to get into those lanes and you’re going to block those shots when it’s necessary.”

Three years ago, under coach Dale Hunter, the Capitals employed a defensive style of play that emphasized blocking shots. Players were not fond of it, in part because it was a radical mid-season departure from the uptempo system of the previous four seasons.

Trotz doesn’t emphasize blocking shots as much as merely taking away clear looks — and on Monday, nothing was more clear than the result.

“We all fit into the grand scheme of things for our team, and you know, we all are trying to work our butts off for each other and make the right plays and do whatever it takes to win,” Carlson said.


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