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Braden Holtby holds key to Capitals’ fate

May 20, 2018 GMT

It should be no surprise that the Washington Capitals season is on the brink of a disappointing ending in Game 6 in the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday night at Capital One Arena.

The Capitals are down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series following Saturday nights loss in Game 5 in Tampa Bay.

Despite having finally broken through the second round playoff wall that had blocked the Alex Ovechkin Capitals for so long, the questions that have dogged the franchise remain and so do the answers.

The Capitals can dominate, but are not dominant in the most important moments. The Capitals can play well, but they cannot sustain success. The Capitals are capable of winning, but seem far more comfortable folding.

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The answer? Its been the same since this round of the playoffs started Braden Holtby.

Make no mistake, these Capitals have gotten this far because of Holtbys play in the net. Its not hard to track their success it began when coach Barry Trotz benched his playoff starter after two games, Philipp Neubauer, and replaced him with his longtime starter, Holtby.

The Capitals may have played some of their best postseason hockey of the Ovechkin era, going on a run that knocked out Columbus and Pittsburgh, but you could make the case that their confidence and energy fed off Holtbys play.

We havent seen that from the goalie in this series against the best opponent they have faced, when they need that kind of performance the most. Did they lose Game 5 because of Holtby? No. But they didnt win it because of him, either. Playing well may simply not be good enough.

Sure the Capitals may have to stay out of the penalty box more, be faster to the puck, get more rebounds near the Tampa Bay net, stop turning the puck over.

But they can fail in all those ways, and still find themselves as winners if Holtby can play his best. When that happens, he is the eraser for all mistakes. And when he does play like that, the Capitals seem to skate faster, get more rebounds and are more careful with the puck.

Its the burden of the goaltender. It may be unfair, but more often than not in the playoffs, it is the goaltender that creates the atmosphere of winning with unlikely but inspiring saves.

Matt Niskanen misses on a block attempt? Braden Holtby save us. Dmitry Orlov loses the puck. Braden Holtby save us.

I wrote at the start of these playoffs that we would have to see a sustained Stanley Cup performance from Holtby, a former Vezina Trophy winner, like we have yet to see from him over five previous playoff appearances but certainly one he is capable of.

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Tampa Bay has turned things around after losing the first two games of this series because of Holtbys opposite, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevkiy. After allowing 10 goals in the first two games, Vasilevkiy has stopped 100 of the last 106 shots he has faced in the next three wins even though Washington outshot Tampa Bay in those games.

Their goaltender back there is seeing the puck pretty well, and even when he is not, it seems to hit him, T.J. Oshie told reporters after the Game 5 loss.

How familiar is that narrative?

You can look back at many of the Washington playoff failures and find specific reasons where one player came up short or disappeared or simply was outplayed, but the common denominator for those losses, for the most part, is the opposing goalie outplaying whoever was in net for Washington from Jaroslav Halek to Henrik Lundqvist to Marc-Andre Fleury to Matt Murray. And now, perhaps Vasilevkiy.

Return with me to 1998, when Washington defeated the Buffalo Sabres in six games to win their one and only Eastern Conference championship. In that series, they faced one of the greatest goaltenders in the history of the game Dominik Hasek. And it was there that Capitals goaltender Olie Kolzig played his way into franchise history.

In the sixth and deciding game, Hasek had 38 saves and allowed three goals. Kolzig had 41 saves and allowed two goals.

In the end, it came down to that simple formula.

The last time the only time the Washington Capitals reached the Stanley Cup finals, they did so on the shoulders of Olie Kolzig. Braden Holtby is capable of taking them on the same route.

He can save them.

⦁ Thom Loverros Cigars Curveballs podcast is available Wednesdays on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.