Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 31, 2018

Braden Holtby Rescues The Capitals

If the improbable run of the Vegas Golden Knights ends with a championship parade down the corridor of neon and excess that is the Las Vegas Strip, then the moment will be forgotten. The story will instead be about how Alex Ovechkin, having finally reached the Stanley Cup Finals after thirteen seasons, was denied a title by a band of misfits and castoffs who comprised the roster of a first-year expansion team. The sidebar will describe the massive financial losses for the city’s sports books, which offered preseason odds on the Golden Knights winning the Cup of 200-1.

But that outcome, which took on the first whiff of inevitability after the home squad outhustled, outhit, and outscored the Washington Capitals 6-4 in Game 1 of the Finals, is, for now, not so certain. And if in the end it is Ovechkin who lifts the Cup and his teammates and fans in D.C. who are celebrating as the NHL’s season concludes, then the moment that came with one tick less than two minutes remaining in the third period of Wednesday night’s Game 2 will become a part of Capitals’ lore, forever celebrated as the save that saved a season.

Braden Holtby has minded the net for Washington for eight seasons, the last six as the Capitals starting goalie. He’s a two-time All-Star who won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender two years ago. Last November he earned his 200th victory in his 319th game, reaching the double century mark in the second fewest games in NHL history, behind only Ken Dryden. But in Monday’s Game 1 he turned in a lackluster performance, allowing five goals (Vegas’s final score was an empty-netter). In doing so he helped Washington squander leads of 2-1 and 4-3.

He was far more resolute Wednesday night, when he finished the game with thirty-seven saves. Still, even with the Capitals leading 3-2 with one period to play, a victory by the visitors was far from assured. Two nights earlier they had gone up a goal early in the final frame, only to see Holtby beaten, first by Ryan Reeves and then by Tomas Nosek, as the Golden Knights stormed back, to the delight of their fans packing T-Mobile Arena. In a Game 2 reprise, Vegas skaters rushed the Washington net again and again, firing fifteen shots in all over the final twenty minutes. But the crucial one, the one that seemed certain to tie the game and give the home team all the momentum came as time was winding down.

With the clock approaching two minutes remaining, the Golden Knights dumped the puck into the Capitals’ zone from center ice. The long pass down the left side caromed off the end boards at an odd angle, sliding across the crease right in front of Holtby and directly to the Golden Knights’ Cody Eakin. As it did so Holtby hugged that side of the net, prepared to defend against a shot from the Vegas center. But instead Eakin whipped a pass back across the ice to Alex Tuch, who was racing in alone on the left. Even as the puck sped toward him, Tuch wound up, prepared to deliver a one-timer that would tie the score.

The action was so fast and the quarters so close that Holtby had no chance to push off on his skates and slide across the crease to defend against Tuch. What the young right winger saw as he began to whip his right-handed stick onto the ice was a vast expanse of open net. Tuch was just outside the crease and closing when his stick met ice and puck at the same moment, propelling the disk into the back of the net for the game-tying goal.

Except that the puck never made it across the goal line and into the promised land of Washington’s net. For in that crucial split second Tuch’s was not the only stick that was moving. With no time to put his body in the way, Holtby swung his right arm away from his body, flashing his goalie stick across the net in a desperate effort to prevent a seemingly certain score. The shot came from point-blank range, but Holtby’s paddle was perfectly placed. The puck was blocked by the widest part of the goaltender’s stick and bounced straight down onto the ice, where Holtby immediately smothered it, first with his glove and then with his entire body.

In the moments after the incredible save, the NBC cameras showed a dazed looking Tuch, a skater who appeared confused as to why the red goal light wasn’t on. Then they flashed to Ovechkin on the Washington bench, his mouth hanging open in disbelief. As if to confirm that emotion the Capitals’ superstar covered his face with his hands. Later Washington center Jay Beagle would initially call the play “the save of the year,” before upgrading his assessment to “maybe the save of a lifetime.”

Now the Capitals go home, not halfway to elimination as could easily have been the case, but with the series all square and having wrested home ice away from the Golden Knights. Washington returns to the Capital One Arena having won a game in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. Already in these playoffs the Capitals have overcome a two games to none deficit against Columbus in the first round, a loss in the opening contest of the second round against their old nemesis from Pittsburgh, and survived a pair of elimination games against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Finals.

As strikingly different as it is from the sad playoff history of the Capitals franchise, that resilience is no guarantee that Washington will claim the Cup. The story of this NHL season may yet be about the misfits in the Nevada desert. But if the Capitals do prevail, Holtby’s save will likely be the turning point of the series. Fittingly enough, it came in an arena where the pregame shows are must-see extravaganzas, as one would expect in Las Vegas. For the Finals, the slogan displayed at the end of the entertainment is “Welcome to Impossible.” That would aptly characterize a first-year expansion franchise seizing the Cup. But it also describes Braden Holtby’s save.

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