'The goalie is everything for us': Caps' Game 5 triumph started and ended with Braden Holtby

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Braden Holtby turns back Pittsburgh’s Carl Hagelin during the second period for one of his 36 saves in Game 5. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The eruption came afterward, a release that shook Capital One Arena with more than 100 decibels, a roar followed by “Let’s go Caps!” chants that may well have rattled dishes and exploded wine glasses at Penn Commons or Daikaya. The game-winning goal happened when Jakub Vrana, the breakout star of the Washington Capitals’ postseason, buried a puck behind Matt Murray and unleashed pandemonium. What happened before the big noise was a familiar noise: the thud of vulcanized rubber off the pads of Braden Holtby.

Everything that transpired Saturday night, like most everything in this series, could be traced back to Holtby. The Capitals will travel to Pittsburgh for Monday’s Game 6 in a crusade of a second-round series with a 3-2 lead over the Penguins. There are plenty of explanations. The clearest reason the Capitals stand one victory from advancement, rather than one loss from ruin, is the soft-spoken, bearded goalie who started these playoffs on the bench.

Holtby made 36 saves in the Capitals’ 6-3 victory Saturday night, the biggest coming when he stoned Brian Dumoulin’s backhand attempt from just outside the crease with less than five minutes left, which led directly to a rush the other way and the game-winning goal. Holtby had single-handedly kept the Capitals in the game during the second period, when the Penguins utterly controlled play but emerged with only a one-goal lead. On a night when Vrana scored the game-winner and added two assists, Holtby was the first star, and nobody would argue.

“He was fantastic,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “To me, your backbone of your team is the goaltender. When you don’t have your best stuff, like we didn’t in the second, he was huge for us. He kept the game reachable. It didn’t get away from us.”

Holtby’s excellence, in this round against this opponent, may become one of the most significant developments in the Alex Ovechkin era. When the Penguins ousted the Capitals last year, the Capitals internally believed the Penguins prevailed because Marc-Andre Fleury outplayed Holtby. This year, the Capitals lead the series because Holtby has been better than Murray. The Capitals still need another win, but Holtby may be the primary cog in Washington moving to the conference finals for the first time in two decades.

“The goalie is everything for us,” Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “We just have to give him the lane, see the puck. He will stop every puck, for sure.”

Holtby’s teammates will carry such confidence in him to Pittsburgh because of saves like he made late in the third period. Vrana’s goal sparked a wild celebration, the culmination of a breathtaking full-ice rush from Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin.

But first, go back to the other end of the ice.

“I think you’ve got to look at Holts first,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “Usually, it always starts with Holts, and it did on the game-winner and pretty much throughout the entire game for us tonight.”

With less than five minutes remaining and the score tied at 3, Riley Sheahan wheeled around the right corner in the Capitals’ zone. Washington’s defense let Dumoulin sneak behind them, alone in the center of the ice at point-blank range. Sheahan fed him a pass on the tape.

Dumoulin moved to his backhand and, crossing from left to right, flicked a shot. Holtby slid on his knees and became a wall, blocking the puck and executing a challenging save, having accounted for both the obvious threat Sheahan posed and the sudden danger Dumoulin presented.

“A lot of those plays have to do with your timing,” Holtby said. “Try and keep enough momentum to push back the other way, and also stay square enough if they shoot the puck. Just try to be patient. Luckily, I read the play right.”

After the puck bounded off Holtby’s pads, Kuznetsov bolted down the ice and fed Ovechkin, who carried it deep into the Penguins’ zone and found Vrana, who deposited the game-winner.

For the Capitals to have even a chance at that play, they needed Holtby’s borderline heroic second period. He made 18 of his playoff-high 36 saves in the second, when the Penguins dominated. Coach Mike Sullivan would say the performance “might have been our best game of the series.” That the Penguins lost anyway is a direct reflection of Holtby.

The meaningful comparison for Game 6 is how thoroughly Holtby is outplaying his counterpart. Where pucks bounced off Murray, Holtby vacuumed possible rebounds. When the Capitals started testing Murray in the third, it felt like he was there for the taking. As the Penguins bombarded Holtby, it felt like he was growing impenetrable. In the game’s biggest moment, he was.

In the immediate aftermath, Holtby identified a different save as his most important: his very first of the night. Sidney Crosby broke loose and ripped a shot, and Holtby reached his glove back behind him and snared it, just barely keeping the game scoreless.

“One of those desperation saves,” Holtby said. “That’s a part of the game when I wanted to step up. Obviously, you get scored on first shot, you want to come up with a save however you can.”

The Penguins had come out flying, on Washington’s home ice, and the save let Holtby regroup. “At that point, you just have to really simplify your game — really simplify,” Holtby said. “One save at a time, one moment.”

In the end, Holtby had a moment to savor. Amid the clamor and joy and two empty-net goals turning Capital One Arena into a party, another chant broke out. It reverberated through the building, loud enough, perhaps, to carry deep into the spring. The red-clan fans chanted, over and over, “Holt-by! Holt-by!”

Read more on the Capitals:

‘One more game!’: Caps fans celebrate on National Portrait Gallery steps

Washington wins, 6-3, and Caps have two chances to clinch series

From last week: Speedy Jakub Vrana could be the Capitals’ X-factor