- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2020

Braden Holtby, one of the NHL’s best postseason goaltenders of the last decade, is hot again. The New York Islanders respect the challenge ahead.

When Holtby was asked for his initial thoughts of the Washington Capitals’ first-round playoff matchup against the Islanders, one of the first things he said was, “They don’t back down.” That seems to sum up the Islanders’ attitude toward handling Holtby heading into their series this week.

“We just can’t make it easy on him,” Islanders center Casey Cizikas said. “If we don’t get in his eyes, if we get away from shooting the puck and giving up chances, then that’s when we’re gonna have trouble. But if we get to that paint, if we make it hard on him, then our chances are gonna go up to score.”

Holtby saved 74 of 80 shots in the Capitals’ three seeding round-robin games last week. Even when the Flyers beat Washington 3-1 Thursday, Holtby never gave up a soft goal; they were usually attributable to defensive breakdowns in front of him.Through losses and wins, his stellar play showed up on the film, something his teammates affirmed.

“I think he’s for sure been our best player” in the bubble, T.J. Oshie said. “That’s no question.”

It’s certainly refreshing for Capitals fans to see something resembling vintage Holtby now. The 30-year-old will become a free agent at the end of the season, and it’s quite possible his days in Washington are numbered no matter what happens this postseason. He’s also coming off the worst regular season of his career; he’d never allowed more than three goals per game nor saved less than 90% of shots he faced until 2019-20.

Holtby said he’d put in “a lot of work” during the NHL season’s pause to fix some deficiencies in his game and strengthen himself for the playoff run. His teammates know this, and they have all faith in their No. 1 goalie.

Nicklas Backstrom said that Holtby’s calmness and poise have stood out most to him, and Oshie praised the job he’s done tracking the puck.

“I’m not a goalie coach so I can’t tell you anything about his mechanics,” Oshie said, “but it seems like he’s seeing the ice and seeing the game really well. He’s anticipating right, he’s making huge saves at big times for us and there hasn’t been too many scrambles in front of our net.”

It’ll be up to New York to disrupt that poise and pressure the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner. Holtby made two starts against the Islanders in the regular season, allowing four goals each time.

But Islanders top-line center Mathew Barzal said when Holtby’s on, he’s on.

“We’re just gonna have to find ways to open up shots or hopefully just capitalize on our chances, because shots from the point or low created chances have a tough time going in on him just because he’s so positionally sound,” Barzal said.

“He’s gonna make saves where you think he’s out (of the net), but somehow he gets across,” Cizikas said, in a description reminiscent of “The Save” Holtby made in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. “But you’ve got to just keep pushing for it and keep putting pressure on him and do whatever you can to make him feel uncomfortable.”

It goes without saying that Islanders coach Barry Trotz and director of goaltending Mitch Korn are familiar with Holtby from their success together in Washington. Trotz didn’t want to delve into his scouting report on what Holtby has done well in Toronto.

“I can tell you that Braden is a quality goaltender and if you’re gonna beat any team in the playoffs, you’re gonna have to get to their goaltender, make it hard on them and all that,” Trotz said.”I wouldn’t have won a championship without Braden Holtby,” he added. “I know that.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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