Braden Holtby has a simple rule, self-enforced after every game he plays. He permits half an hour to deal with his emotions. And that’s it: After 30 minutes is up, by order of his own decree, he does not allow himself to stew or to celebrate, to lament or to savor. Every ounce of energy is devoted to cold analysis and focus on what comes next.
For the entirety of his postseason, it has meant warding off feelings in the area of contentment and overconfidence. Tuesday night, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals brought a different set of emotions to discard, all of them closely tied to frustration.
Since Holtby reclaimed his position as the Washington Capitals’ starting goalie after two playoff games, he had not confronted a game like the 4-2 loss the Tampa Bay Lightning handed Washington at Capital One Arena. None of the four goals Holtby allowed were egregious, or could justifiably be blamed on him. But he had also not allowed four goals yet in these playoffs. For 48 hours, as the Capitals cling to a 2-1 series lead, Holtby must analyze, chew on and try to forget the unsightly digit on the scoreboard.
The process started late Tuesday night. In a corner of the Capitals’ dressing room, he sat on a bench next to goalie coach Scott Murray, his skates still on, his hair still slick with sweat, discussing the game he had just played. It was the same routine he adheres to every game, part of how he releases the emotions.
“You let them go,” Holtby said after the game. “Tomorrow, you take a look at film and you see what you can do better. Next game is a new moment. This game doesn’t matter when it comes to the next game.”
Those around Holtby betrayed no doubt he would rebound in time for Game 4. Teammates said Tampa Bay executed perfect shots against a defense that was a step behind all night. When he could have decided it just wasn’t his night or given Holtby rest, Coach Barry Trotz stuck with Holtby all game long, at least until the Capitals desperately opted for a sixth skater.
“Braden is one of those elite goaltenders,” Trotz said. “He’s one of the guys that parks everything. He’s always been excellent in bouncing back after a loss. I don’t see that being a problem. It hasn’t been.”
Holtby had yet to review tape when he spoke with reporters late Tuesday night, but if he had, he would have seen four goals that he had little chance to stop. Tampa Bay’s first two goals came on power plays, in similar fashion, huge slap shots from Lightning stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.
“I didn’t see them very well,” Holtby said. “I’m going to look to see if there’s a lane where I could maybe get a bit of a read.”
Even if he had, it may not have mattered. Stamkos’s was a laser over his back shoulder, and Kucherov’s was similarly unstoppable.
“Two perfectly placed shots,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
“Perfect shots,” defenseman John Carslon said. “You certainly can’t be mad at him for those.”
The Capitals trailed, 2-0, when Victor Hedman’s one-timer, set up by a turnover and a crafty pass from Kucherov, sailed into a wide open net, far out of Holtby’s reach. Hedman was moving laterally as he shot the puck, which Holtby said made it difficult to defend, especially after the sudden change in possession.
Tampa Bay’s final goal, a backbreaker that made it 4-1, may have been the most hopeless for Holtby. The puck settled amid a pileup of players, pinballing around until suddenly Brayden Point ripped a shot that, from Holtby’s perspective, appeared out of thin air and materialized behind him — by the time he reacted, the puck was in the net, past him on the short side.
“Somehow, the puck got through eight guys,” Holtby said. “It happens. That’s the way hockey goes. But there’s always something you can do a little bit better.”
The one detail Holtby would work on had to do with conditions. He frequently stumbled on the ice, which had the consistency of a particularly think Slurpee. Humidity outside the arena and the previous night’s Bon Jovi concert had turned the rink into a lagoon. Still, Holtby believed he needed to find a way to “figure out how to get my edges a little better,” he said.
Even when it didn’t count, a puck going into the net behind him managed to upset Holtby. At the end of the second period, Tampa Bay forward and noted pest Chris Kunitz slipped the puck into the net after the horn sounded. Holtby jawed with Kunitz and then chirped at the referee during his entire skate off the ice, arguing Kunitz’s cheeky move warranted an easy unsportsmanlike penalty.
“It’s usually a simple penalty,” Holtby said. “But, whatever.”
Late Tuesday, Holtby had already let the play go. He thrives, in part, on maintaining an equilibrium. In postgame interviews, Holtby never veers from the same steely gaze and calm voice, whether the Capitals win or lose. He focuses on only what he can control, somehow breathing vivid life into the tired cliche.
After Trotz benched Holtby in favor of Philipp Grubauer at the outset of the playoffs, Holtby told him, flatly, “When you put me in, I will stop the puck.” And he has: The Capitals went on a 10-2 rampage after his reinsertion, and Holtby was the biggest difference in the Capitals finally beating the Penguins.
“I don’t think [the four goals] would change anything from his standpoint,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. “He’s a total pro, and he just goes on and plays the next game, just like a lot of guys. I don’t think it changes anything, but I think it was nice for our guys too, to see the puck go in.”
For the past two rounds, Holtby has often found a way to control the game, even under a heavy rain of rubber, no matter the traffic in front of the net. In Game 3, he was neither spectacular nor fortunate. He has not had to face the psychological challenge, in these playoffs, of coming back after letting in four goals. But Holtby does not care about what happened, only what will come in the next game.
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