There were a ton of great storylines in the Capitals run to the Stanley Cup. There was Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom finally leading their team to glory. There was Barry Trotz, adding a Stanley Cup to his impressive coaching resume. But another dazzling one came in between the pipes.
Many Stanley Cup championship teams had great goaltending carry them to the Cup and Braden Holtby did exactly that. But if Caps were told back in early April, whether it be the end of the regular season or when the Caps were down 0-2 to the Blue Jackets, that it would be the Holtbeast regaining his form and leading the Capitals all the way through June, I’m sure they would think that person was crazy.
That’s exactly what happened.
Holtby had one of the worst regular seasons of his career. While he did win 34 games, it wasn’t the Holtbeast Vezina winning standards we were used to seeing. 34-16-4 isn’t bad but the alrming aspect was his goals-against average and save percentage. 2.99 GAA was a career-high and the .907 save percentage was a career-low.
During a couple parts in the season, Holtby needed some time off from game action; a mental reset. That was when Philipp Grubauer emerged to the point that he earned the starting goaltender spot to begin the Stanley Cup playoffs. However, that promotion was short-lived. The Capitals were hit with some early adversity when the playoffs hit. They dropped Game 1 in overtime to the Columbus Blue Jackets after blowing a two-goal lead.
In Game 2 of the series, it happened again. The Capitals went up 2-0 and even held a 3-1 lead before Grubauer allowed three consecutive goals. The Capitals trailed by one entering the final period. When the final 20 minutes began, Holtby came on in relief and kept the Capitals in the game. Despite allowing a goal, which happened to be the game-winner in overtime, Holtby stopped the other seven shots he faced.
Entering a must-win Game 3 down 2-0, then-head coach Barry Trotz could have done one of two things. He could let Grubauer get the start assuming the previous two outings were fluky. Or he could go with Holtby, who seemed like the Holtbeast of old in that one period. Trotz chose the latter and it paid dividends.
This doesn’t go to say that Grubauer didn’t deserve the start. If it wasn’t for Grubauer’s hot hand late in the regular season, who knows if the Caps would have been on the outside looking in.
Game 3 was a nervous affair for the team and fans alike. This by far may have been Holtby’s biggest challenge of the season, as he not only had to be on the ice for the 60-minute regulation but TWO overtimes- a total of 89 minutes. His 33-save effort out of the 35 shots he faced helped lead the Capitals to their first playoff win and perhaps their most important one. That win led to three more to win the series and set up a rematch with the Penguins.
One could pinpoint that Holtby’s confidence may have dipped from the playoffs in 2017. That was the second time in a row the team and he faltered to the Penguins. This time around was different. Holtby’s save percentage against the Penguins in the 2017 playoffs was .887. In 2018 it was .921. His improved play helped the Capitals slay their demons once and for all!
Then came the beasts of the east: the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Capitals won the first two games of the series in convincing fashion, shocking many among the hockey world. The Capitals began to struggle. They dropped the next three games, including two on home ice. They entered Game 6 at Capital One Arena on the ropes. One loss and it’s over. That’s when Holtby came up at his beastiest.
The Capitals not only won Games 6 and 7, their goalie shut out the high-scoring prowess of the Lightning. The Capitals won by a combined 7-0 score. Holtby stopped all 53 shots he faced. In fact, he had not allowed a goal since the second period of Game 5. It helped the Capitals punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 20 years.
The matchup was set, the Capitals against the high-flying Cinderella-story Vegas Golden Knights. The Capitals dropped Game 1 by a 6-4 final. Game 2 was a must win to square the series before heading to DC. With the Capitals ahead by just a goal, Vegas had an amazing opportunity fall into their lap. A strange sequence that saw the puck skedaddle right in front of Holtby. Alex Tuch had a wide-open net, and immediately the hearts of Caps fans everywhere stopped. Holtby stretched to his right and stopped the puck with the paddle of his stick, preserving the lead which led to the Capitals winning their first Stanley Cup Finals game in franchise history.
That save would turn out to be the difference. There would be no turning back for the boys in red as they took Games 3, 4 and 5 to capture the Stanley Cup. Holtby’s story no doubt is an inspiring one, one that shows that despite struggling once you find yourself and your game, the feeling is incredible. I don’t see any signs of the Holtbeast slowing down as the title defending season approaches.