- - Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Remember that time when the Capitals’ Barry Trotz started the playoffs with Philipp Grubauer in net instead of Braden Holtby?

Sure, it was only four games ago, but if 2018 is to be the year that Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals finally make it past the second round of the NHL playoffs, that’s going to be a great trivia question some day.

That’s because Holtby will prove to be the key to any postseason success the Capitals will have over the next few weeks.

The Capitals haven’t lost since Holtby returned as the starter in Game 3, sweeping the Blue Jackets in four straight and clinching with a 6-3 win in Game 6 Monday in Ohio.

Holby wasn’t “shut-down” good in the series. After surrendering just two goals in Game 3 and one in Game 4, Columbus managed to score three in each of the next two. But Holtby was good enough.

“He was outstanding for us,” Trotz told reporters. “You look at Braden, his body of work in the four games was tremendous. I thought he made huge saves at important times in the game, in every game, the last four. You’re gonna sometimes let some bad goals in or some goals you think you might have. But when you needed to have that big save at a key moment, we were able to do that.”

Holtby, 28, the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner as the best NHL goaltender, has always been good enough in the first round.

With Holtby in net, the Capitals have won five of their last six opening rounds, losing only to the New York Rangers in 2013, when Holtby had a Game 7 meltdown and lost 5-0. We know he can get the Capitals past a first-round opponent.

What happened in the first round against Columbus is what we’ve come to expect from Holtby. It’s his track record.

What we don’t know is if he can get Washington past the second round. In four tries, Holtby has failed to close the door.

He gets a chance to change that in this second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He gets a chance to do something he has never done before — something that, for that matter, no Capitals goaltender has done since Olie Kolzig in 1998.

There is no shortage of reasons why Washington has failed to advance past the second round — Ovechkin’s indifference and sometimes invisibility, the coach’s failure to make series adjustments, the team’s lack of toughness, on and on.

Ovechkin appears to have come to the conclusion that fair or not, his legacy is going affected by his team’s playoffs successes and failures. Trotz talked about conversations he had with Ovechkin at the end of the season, when Ovechkin was trying to reach 50 goals.

“I talked to Ovi about this a few games back,” Trotz said. “He said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to get to 50. But the most important thing is that we’re ready for the playoffs.’ That’s really good on him … we talked about individual goals and team goals and right now he wants the team goal.”

He keeps scoring three-foot backhanded goals like he did Monday night against Columbus, Ovechkin will have done his part.

And you could argue the team showed a sense of toughness coming back in this series against the Blue Jackets. I know Washington was the better squad, but the Blue Jackets were a good, tough team that would have given anyone a strong test. The Capitals didn’t play like a team struggling under the fear of losing. In those four games, for the most part, Washington played like the team in control.

That, of course, all could have been left on the ice in Columbus.

The Penguins have control of the Capitals before they even start Game 1.

Pittsburgh has won nine of their 10 playoff series matchups, and all five of the Penguins Stanley Cups have been won by rolling over the Capitals at some point in the postseason, including the past two seasons against Holtby. The Penguins don’t particularly care who Washington has in net. They’ve beaten all of them.

The one man who could control all of that is Holtby. It is what is often asked of goaltenders in the playoffs — to go beyond what they’ve accomplished, to change history, to do something that they haven’t done before.

We’ve seen Holtby do what he did against Columbus.

Against Pittsburgh, the Capitals need their veteran goalie to show the hockey world something transcendent. A performance that will make Grubauer’s two starts at the beginning of this postseason a hockey footnote — the answer to an obscure trivia question.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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