- - Sunday, May 6, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Braden Holtby wants you to know that when you were sitting in your seats at the Capital One Arena or on the couch at home Saturday night in despair after that Game 5 second period when it seemed the Washington Capitals were on the brink of their familiar collapse against the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was sitting right there with you.

“Tonight was one of those games where we needed to earn it from our fans,” Holtby told reporters after Saturday night’s 6-3 win over Pittsburgh. “They probably think ‘Here we go again.”

Finally, a Washington athlete gets it. A player finally understands that this Capitals team has earned its reputation for failure, and, when they put on the uniform, carry all the failures of the past with them. A player who understands the disappointments and discouragements that not just Capitals fans, but a generation of Washington fans carry deep in their hearts.

Yes, after a second period when Pittsburgh crushed Washington with 18 shots on goal, compared to just five for the Capitals, and took a 3-2 lead, it seemed as if another wound was about to be inflicted on the hearts of Capitals fans.

But the one guy who understood what fans were going through was also their greatest hope for change. Yes, Pittsburgh manhandled Washington in the second period and took the lead. But that 3-2 lead could have been a 5-2 lead — or worse — if not for Holtby.

It was Holtby’s stand, not just in that second period but throughout the game, that kept despair at bay. Holtby stopped 12 of 13 Penguins shots in the first period and had 36 saves overall, with the key save coming at five minutes left in the third period, with the score tied 3-3. Holtby made a strong stop against Pittsburgh’s Brian Dumoulin, and then Washington took the puck down the ice and grabbed a 4-3 lead thanks to Jakob Vrana’s wrist shot past Matt Murray.

“Holt’s right now playing unbelievable,” Alex Ovechkin said. “He’s a big wall over there. When he play like that, it give us confidence.”

Before the series started, I wrote that Holtby, the 28-year-old former Vezina Trophy winner, would likely have to be the difference maker for the Capitals. Holtby has to do something that we haven’t seen him or any goalie do for Washington since Olie Kolzig in 1998. That’s hardly a revelation. That he did just that in such an important game, though, and gave Washington the 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semi finals series, may be reason for Capitals fans to feel the same way as Ovechkin does.

Holtby’s performance gave Capitals fans the confidence they needed to dance in the streets around Capital One Arena Saturday night as if their team had done something more than simply win Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It’s a dangerous dance, after all. Fans in the past have had their legs cut out from under them for such celebration and confidence.

It may seem blasphemous to say things feel different this time around. But Holtby is telling you it is OK to believe. It is worth the risk to believe that the Capitals can win one of the next two games — Game 6 is Monday night in Pittsburgh — and win the series.

“Hopefully we gave them belief with that third period because this group in here believes in ourselves,” he said. “Everyone focus on your job, how you can do your best that night, not try and do too much, get ahead of ourselves,” he said. “We need to focus on the moment. I think we’ve been doing a good job of that throughout these playoffs. It’s going to really test us next game to make sure we’re just focused on what we’ve tried to build all year long and play our game.”

This is from the goaltender who had been benched by coach Barry Trotz when the playoffs began.

“To me, your backbone of your team is the goaltender,” Trotz told reporters. “When you don’t have your best stuff, like we didn’t in the second, he was huge for us. He kept the game reachable. It didn’t get away from us.”

Braden Holtby says believe. Saturday night, he showed you how.

⦁ Thom Loverro’s “Cigars & Curveballs” podcast is available Wednesdays on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.


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