- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2022

After the minutes-long video tribute ended, Braden Holtby emerged from the Capital One Arena tunnel to the delight of the roaring crowd. Now with the Dallas Stars, Holtby took in the standing ovation around him — nodding in approval. It was his first return to the arena since leaving the Capitals in 2020.

Holtby didn’t end up playing against his former team because of an injury. But his current squad may not have been the team that needed him the most.

The red-hot Capitals had their four-game winning streak snapped Sunday with a 3-2 loss to the Stars, a defeat that also saw their eight-game point streak end.  

Washington’s Vitek Vanecek, who has become the team’s primary goalie in the wake of Holtby’s departure, had 20 saves on 23 shots — with two of the three goals allowed coming while the Capitals were on the penalty kill.

The Capitals (35-19-10) made a push late, but were unable to fully rally against a team coming in on a back-to-back set. Any positive vibes generated from Holtby’s return seemed like an afterthought for the Capitals — who were particularly furious over a late hit on defenseman John Carlson.

With less than a minute left, Dallas’ Jamie Benn hit a streaking Carlson with his stick — causing the veteran to crash into the boards. The defenseman was slow to get up, and Capitals coach Peter Laviolette had no update on Carlson’s condition after the game.

He gave it a lot of help,” said Laviolette, who called for the NHL to review the play. “That’s dirty.”
 
Sunday’s game came on the eve of the NHL’s trade deadline. Teams have until 3 p.m. Monday to make a deal, and slightly less than three weeks ago, the Capitals looked like they were headed for a quiet day. Amid a team slump, general manager Brian MacLellan told reporters he was less inclined to be “aggressive” as usual because of Washington’s poor start to the new year. MacLellan said the Capitals had fallen from contender status, which makes it harder to part with draft capital or prospects.

Then a funny thing happened for the Capitals: They got hot.

After MacLellan’s March 2 remarks and before Sunday’s loss,  the Capitals went 7-0-1 — including three wins over the first-place Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames, who lead their respective divisions. The surge raised the question of whether MacLellan would rethink his previous position.

Laviolette has played it coy. He downplayed the idea that the executive’s comments motivated the group.

“It’s a long year,” Laviolette said before the game.  

If the Capitals were to make a move, where would they look to upgrade? Adding a veteran goaltender seems like an obvious fit, and that notion was only reinforced Sunday against the Stars.

Just 2 minutes and 17 seconds into the contest, Stars winger Alexander Radulov got Dallas on the board when he chipped one in on a deflection near the side of the net. While the goal may not have been entirely all on Vanecek, perhaps a veteran could corral the rebound before Radulov had the chance to get it.

Vanecek, with a .919 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average, has been the most consistent netminder for the Capitals this season — outplaying Ilya Samsonov — but ill-timed goals are something that MacLellan admitted he was concerned about earlier this month.

“It’s not the overall save percentage, it’s when and how the goals happen,” MacLellan said.

That idea — the best goalies make saves when it counts — was only further highlighted when Holtby was honored with a two-minute video tribute shortly after Radulov’s goal. As part of the montage, Holtby’s iconic leaping save during Game 2 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final was shown because how could it not be? The moment prompted a loud cheer out of the Capital One Arena, but the spectators got even louder when Holtby was shown on the jumbotron.

By most accounts, Holtby — amid a bounce-back year for the 32-year-old —  isn’t thought to be available at the deadline, so a reunion appears unlikely.  The biggest name out there for Washington is former Pittsburgh Penguins rival Marc-Andre Fleury, but the Chicago Blackhawks will likely have no shortage of suitors with the Minnesota Wild and the Edmonton Oilers also rumored as possible destinations.

Still, against the Stars, the Capitals didn’t do Vanecek any favors in front of the net, either. Washington’s penalty kill allowed two goals that netted a pair of goals for Dallas’ Roope Hintz to make it 2-0 and later 3-1.

“Not our best game,” said center Lars Eller, who made his return from a stint on the NHL’s COVID-19 list.

Eller was the latest Capital to rejoin the team after a brief absence. Even during their recent streak, Washington has juggled guys in and out of the lineup — including T.J. Oshie, Nic Dowd and Trevor van Riemsdyk, all of whom missed the Stars game.

As for the deadline approaching, Eller said Sunday felt just like “another day.” If the Capitals were rebuilding, he said, then perhaps there’d be a different vibe. But if the Capitals make a move, it’ll almost certainly be to upgrade their roster.

The Capitals haven’t made it out of the first round since winning the Stanley Cup with Holtby. And this year, captain Alex Ovechkin is putting together another dazzling campaign: The Russian star notched his 40th goal of the year Sunday — tying him with Wayne Gretzky for the most 40-goal seasons in NHL history with 12. Will MacLellan try to take advantage?

The answer will come soon. But first, the Capitals’ priority seemed to be Carlson.

“That’s one of our best players,” Laviolette said.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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