- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Justin Williams was gliding backward through the right faceoff circle during warmups on Monday night when a stiff jab caught him in the back of his left leg. Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby had been splayed out on the ice, stretching his groin muscles, when the blade of his stick caught Williams behind the knee and sent Williams crashing down on top of him.

“I was skating backwards, and all of a sudden, I was on his head,” Williams sheepishly explained afterward. “It happens. … It was pretty sharp, wasn’t it?”

The collision wasn’t particularly graceful, but Holtby’s play was. The goaltender had a season-high 33 saves, picking up his first shutout of the season in a 1-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Monday.

“Shutouts only matter if it’s 1-0 like it was, so it’s a good night to have it,” Holtby said.

Tested by a team whose strategy was to shoot frequently, Holtby punctuated his performance with a remarkable glove save at the end of a two-on-one at 8:13 of the third period. From the left circle, Oilers left wing Taylor Hall sent the puck under the stick of a diving Karl Alzner to Eric Gyrba, who was streaking through the slot.

The defenseman corralled it and let go of a wrister from 20 feet, but Holtby deftly turned it aside, snagging it with his glove while down on his right knee. The save drew a roar from the crowd at Verizon Center, with Holtby coolly playing off its significance in what was, at the time, a scoreless game.

“In a lot of years — I’ve been here a decade or longer — that’s one of the best goaltending performances I’ve seen on a single night,” said left wing Brooks Laich. “That’s saying a lot. I’ve played with some tremendous players. He’s the only reason we were in that game. He made over a dozen, probably, grade-A, glorious saves. He was really, honestly, a stud fest tonight.”

Holtby had nine shutouts last season, one of a plethora of team records and career highs he was able to reach. That Holtby picked up his first shutout in the Capitals’ 21st game this year is not reflective of his continued dominance; Monday’s victory lowered his goals-against average to 1.88, the second-best in the league, and raised his save percentage to .926, good for 10th.

“He absolutely deserved the shutout and he’s been one of our top players all year,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Tonight, he was, by far, our best player. There wasn’t even anybody in the same universe as him today.”

As a restricted free agent, Holtby signed a five-year, $30.5 million contract with the Capitals in late July, solidifying his future after an inconsistent, but promising, first four seasons.

There was no fear within the organization that Holtby would regress once the new deal was in place, owing to Holtby’s fastidious preparation and his tranquil personality. Only once this season has he allowed more than three goals — against the New York Rangers, the Metropolitan Division leaders, on Nov. 3 — and he has only lost two of his 10 starts at home.

He allowed three goals in a 7-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday — a fast-paced, remarkably different affair than the one on Monday.

“The other night was a strange game,” Holtby said. “I thought we did some things good and some things not so good. [Against Edmonton], it’s a little tough to come back after that when scoring was coming pretty easy for us. Not our strongest game, but we battled through.”

Of course, Holtby had to battle through on Monday as well. Williams lifted himself up off Holtby before the game and, with a slight grin, asked if the goaltender was OK. Holtby insisted he was, and Williams skated away, leaving Holtby to finish the rest of his stretching routine.

Then the true spectacle began.

“Hopefully,” Holtby said, “we don’t have to make that a habit.”

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