Holtby confident heading into biggest game of his NHL career, again

Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby sits down with Kyle Bukauskas to talk about his performance and the team forcing Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

TAMPA, Fla. — Braden Holtby had just recorded his first shutout of the season, in biggest game of his NHL career, and the Washington Capitals goalie basically shrugged about it.

“The only reason it’s good is we won,” Holtby said, after Monday night’s 3-0 victory over Tampa Bay. “Aside from that, it’s just good for you guys — you can write about it.” (That’s true.)

“But for us,” Holtby continued, “it’s just that ‘W.’”

The ‘W’ he’s referring to is a huge one, of course, the win that forced Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final with the Tampa Bay Lightning, which is set for Wednesday at Amalie Arena.

And while Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has been the talk of this series of late — and for good reason, seeing as the Vezina candidate stole Game 4 and has been outstanding — he and Holtby have near identical save percentages in this post season (.920 for Vasilevskiy, .919 for Holtby). It’s the Capitals goalie who has the edge in GAA, at 2.16 compared to Vasilevskiy’s 2.55, and in shutouts, at one compared to none.

Vasilevskiy made some enormous saves in the first period of Game 6, but it was Holtby who made a few show-stoppers later in the game to preserve his team’s lead, including a big glove save on Ondrej Palat.

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The 28-year-old from Lloydminster, Sask., who might be the very definition of laid back, downplayed that save, among the 24 he made on Monday night.

“That’s one of those that probably looks more difficult than it actually is,” Holtby said, sporting a bushy beard and a backwards Capitals hat. “I was just trying to stay in the moment, focus on one puck at a time, and made the save on that one.”

The crowd responded with “Holt-by! Holt-by!” chants, which he may have heard, but didn’t pay much attention to. “I try and stay the same level through the game,” Holtby said. “Obviously appreciate the crowd support, especially today, I thought it was a lot of energy.

“I play my best when I’m kind of zoned out, not really focusing on that. I don’t really hear it too much.”

If you watch Holtby between whistles, his eyes are often half-shut and he’s talking to himself, maybe even singing (his mom is a country music singer, after all). He’s a classic goalie, really, big into routines. Before the game, he’ll tape his stick perfectly with white tape, and then his eyes will dart around, tracking who knows what. He’ll squirt his water in the air and watch each droplet fall.

Before Game 6, Holtby walked down the tunnel with his gaze straight ahead and high-fived a couple fans, and then he took a deep exhale before stepping onto the ice and putting together a perfect performance.

It’s been quite the post-season for No. 70, up to Tuesday’s biggest moment of all, a win away from the Stanley Cup Final. To start these playoffs, Holtby was playing backup to Philipp Grubauer, after a tough stretch in the regular season that saw the former Vezina winner put up some career-worst numbers.

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But Holtby regained his net in Game 3 of Washington’s first-round series against Columbus, and he’s been there ever since.

“Obviously an up-and-down year for him personally, but the way he’s bounced back, he’s been amazing all through the playoffs,” said forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who scored Washington’s second goal on Monday. “Really, really happy for him.”

Of that shutout, Holtby’s first of the season, Smith-Pelly said: “It’s a perfect time.”

It is, indeed.

Capitals head coach Barry Trotz has watched the goaltender grow a great deal over the last few seasons, and calls Holtby “the backbone of our hockey club.”

“You can’t go anywhere without goaltending, and he’s been solid,” Trotz said. “Braden is a true pro, he works on his game, he finds ways to make a difference and he does.”

What remains to be seen is whether Holtby can be a difference-maker in Tampa on Wednesday, in the biggest game of all so far, and lead himself and so many of his teammates to a first-ever Stanley Cup Final.

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