WASHINGTON – In a chaotic game busy with collisions and vengeance, wicked shots and pretty passes, smart decisions and dumb luck, sometimes there’s a singular moment that transcends hockey’s beautiful mess.
The rare play that goes down in sporting lore, that defines a season, a franchise, a group, a man.
It could be a double-OT winner or a football pinned to a helmet. A called-shot home run or a timely stick measurement request.
Braden Holtby authored one of those moments Wednesday night in Las Vegas.
If the Washington Capitals outrace the Vegas Golden Knights in their spring sprint to three more wins and drink champagne from the Stanley Cup, they’ll make T-shirts and posters and, maybe a decade or two from now, scribble breathless oral histories on The Save.
This angle gives more perspective, WHAT A SAVE! My goodness… exciting hockey that’s for sure! pic.twitter.com/zZQQwUPRo6
— Christian Ravary (@Chris_Ravary) May 31, 2018
The score was 3-2 Capitals, the time remaining was not much, the Golden Knights were pressing to tie the game, and Washington defenceman Matt Niskanen says the visitors were “holding on for dear life” in Game 2 when it happened.
Go down 2-0 to the relentless Knights, blowing an opportunity to seize advantage of two very mediocre performances by Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Cup would feel lost.
Holtby had found the boards in T-Mobile Arena to bounce true, so when a Vegas dump-in caromed directly to mid-ice and on the tape of a streaking Cody Eakin, he was caught off-guard. Eakin made a snap pass to speedster Alex Tuch to the right of the goal mouth.
Tuch leaned into a one-timer and got all of the puck, but Holtby desperately threw out the inside of his paddle and stole a sure thing.
“To me, it was the hockey gods,” said coach Barry Trotz. “Once he made that save, I knew we were going to win that game.”
The reaction from fans and players was priceless.
Alex Ovechkin: “Thank God he’s our goalie. … I don’t know how to say it. It’s incredible. In that moment he made that save, he didn’t stop, he didn’t quit the play, and it’s unbelievable. I don’t know what to say.”
Jay Beagle: “I was backchecking. I’m three feet too late. You see that kind of develop in your mind, you’re thinking there’s no way that bounces to them across crease and then comes back across. Holts just makes the save of the year. Maybe the save of a lifetime.”
T.J. Oshie: “When it bounced right out to them, I was like, ‘Oh no.’ But then I was like, ‘Oh yes.’ That was great. I mean, a huge save at the right time. We really needed that one.”
Andre Burakovsky: “My heart stopped on the bench. I mean, the last five minutes, I never think I’ve been this nervous in my life. When he saved that, I was just … I mean, it’s unbelievable.”
Nate Schmidt: “It was an elite-level save, that’s for sure. This time of the year you need things like that, if you’re going to move on.”
Tuch: “I’ve got to bury that, though.”
Holtby: “Luckily it hit me. … We have a goal in mind that will be a lot bigger than a save and social media.”
Holtby, 28, is that rare healthy franchise goaltender who was not chosen to start the playoff opener. Trotz, coaching with no job security for 2018-19, elected to go with backup Philipp Grubauer for the first two games in Round 1, both home losses to Columbus.
Despite Grubauer being the more consistent of the two late in the season, the decision to go with inexperience was mildly controversial.
“Being on the bench for Games 1 and 2, it wasn’t a big thing for me because Grubie was playing so good and has all year,” Holtby says. “I just wanted to come in with a positive attitude and be a good teammate in any way possible. If it happened that I was called upon to play I was just trying to do everything I could to be ready.”
Holtby posted a .907 save percentage this season, his worst in eight NHL seasons. He was in his own head too much. Trying too hard to be the difference-maker. He admits the Capitals, too, have had issues with trying not to lose instead of trying to win — a death knell for athletes.
“I’ve learned a lot of valuable things throughout the situations, about myself, about the way hockey is now. It’s changed. You have to play a little different than in the past with the speed and the way the game is mostly all about offence now,” he explains.
“You know that putting too much pressure on yourself and doing too much is never that good. And I got caught up trying to do too much, and it never works too well, and it ended up snowballing.
“It looks bad on paper, but this year I think is one of those years where I’ve learned more and soaked in more knowledge than previous years.”
When Grubauer seized the net in February, Holtby appreciated a break, some time to analyze his game and rediscover the roots of what’s made him great.
Wednesday’s 37-save epic illustrates his uncanny ability to park disappointment. Holtby entered Game 2 with a .930 save percentage after a loss. His .949 rate on that night bumped it up further.
There’s a flip side to this serie’s goalie story, and it should concern Knights Nation.
Marc-Andre Fleury may be hitting a wall.
After handily outduelling a trio of the world’s best — Jonathan Quick, Martin Jones and Connor Hellebuyck — to get this far, Fleury has allowed seven goals in less than 120 minutes of work in the final (.870 save percentage). Two games ago, he was the no-brainer Conn Smythe front-runner, but he booted one on Monday and vastly overcommitted to Lars Eller’s tying goal Wednesday.
The affable Flower — a hero they make chocolate monuments and name puppies after in Vegas — appeared to injure his left hip or upper leg area in the clincher against Winnipeg, and he may be nursing something now.
Vegas coach Gerard Gallant is sticking up for his man, instead crediting the Capitals’ offence for their goals.
“I don’t talk about the goaltender, how they played. Dave Prior is our goalie coach. You can talk to Dave about that,” Gallant said. “Fleury’s been pretty good all year.”
No doubt. But Holtby is better now.
If that stays true, it’ll be the difference, and The Save will be legend.
“Everything else, that’s for the off-season and in the future, where you can think about that,” says Holtby, also a Zen master.
“Right now, we’re just one moment at a time, just trying to enjoy the ride, take in the views and be our best selves.”
And make our best saves.