Will one goalie stand on his head for two games? Or will one will completely crumble under the lights?
And with three games or less on the docket, a brick-wall mounting or full-sieve heel turn could well mean the difference between a showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins or an opportunity to skate in the world championships.
Defending Vezina winner Holtby already claimed the 2017 William Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goaltender on the team allowing the fewest goals. His name will certainly be included in Saturday’s press release announcing this season’s Vezina finalists.
Andersen, too, proved to be one of the conference’s best and most depended-upon netminders, posting a .918 save percentage over 66 appearances behind an average blue-line. Yet neither has delivered his A game for 60 minutes in the second season, and time is running out.
“Too many goals are going in. How’s that?” Leafs coach Mike Babcock summarized bluntly.
Of the starting goalies still alive in these playoffs, none own a worse save percentage than Andersen (.905) or Holtby (.907).
We’ve seen a combined eight shoutouts in the other first-round series; only once in this set has a goalie kept his goals against under three (Holtby allowed two in Game 1).
Statistically, Andersen and Holtby are each playing well below their personal playoff and regular-season averages. Combine this with a 1-2 ranking in shots per game among surviving squads — Toronto has 37.5, Washington 36.8 — and it’s making for high-volume workloads and call-your-grandma firewagon hockey.
It’s wild, raucous fun for us viewers.
But, in the goalies’ minds, it’s stirring apprehension, self-blame and excuse-making.
“It’s one of those stretches where every type of bounce seems to be going the wrong way. You have to focus on the percentages, where they usually go, and taking them away,” Holtby said — after a win.
“[I’m] trying to overcompensate for the bad bounces at times with screens and traffic in front. You just gotta battle. Look and video and find certain ways to fight through it.”
Holtby also dropped this: “We earned our bounces, and they kinda got theirs.”
The twist here is that Holtby is finally receiving the playoff run support he’s long deserved. The man has allowed two goals or fewer in 32 of his 50 career playoff games, and the Capitals are just 21-11 in those contests.
Holtby hasn’t been awful by any means, but he’s admitted that there are shots he’d like to have back.
Heroic grinder Tom Wilson bailed him out in Game 4 by diving into the crease for a trickling puck. And even that wow moment in Game 3, when Holtby charged from his net to the blue line to break up a Mitch Marner breakaway with high-risk aggression, he later called an error in judgment.
“Goalies, they do everything on predictability, and there are a lot of things that aren’t very predictable right now, and that’s what at times makes Braden look like he’s not there,” coach Barry Trotz said.
“He’s playing fine. It’s just not very predictable right now because there is stuff that is bouncing all over. It’s a pinball machine out there.”
That’s by design.
“We’ve got to frustrate him,” Nazem Kadri said. “We’re getting in those dirty areas and finding ways to score on deflections and rebounds and secondary opportunities. He’s a great goaltender if he sees the puck flat-on.”
The Leafs have invested time studying video of Holtby, examining his positional tendencies and picking out where to shoot.
“When push comes to shove, he’s one of the best goalies in the league. You never see him rattled in net,” Matt Martin said. “Freddy’s been great for us as well, so hopefully we can tighten up and not rely as much on Freddy to make big saves.”
Unlike Andersen, Holtby hit the rink for optional skates Tuesday and Thursday to work on his game. He made a conscious effort to play the puck more frequently in Game 4 to get a better feel for the game.
“He asked if he could come out and do some stuff just to keep his body [ready],” Trotz said. “He’s one of those guys that a body in motion stays in motion.”
As good as Andersen has looked for stretches — both goalies have snuffed out 5-on-3 power plays — Justin Williams tapped in a puck he fumbled in his skates in Game 1, and Andersen knows he should’ve stopped both Capitals’ game-winners: Wilson’s chuck-it from the half-wall in Game 1’s OT and T.J. Oshie’s five-hole softy in the third period of Game 4. He’s owned those mistakes.
“It was a tough letdown. One of those turns you want to come up big, and I failed to do that today,” Andersen said after Game 4’s loss.
His play as a whole?
“Not the best. I wish I could have helped the team out a little bit more, coming up bigger when they had their chances.”
The forwards in both sweaters are flying, the chances are plentiful, and the series is gleefully wide open, there to be seized.
Time for one of these masked men to stand up and shut the door.