WASHINGTON, DC – It was the third period. Nicklas Backstrom had just tied Game 5 of the Washington Capitals’ series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night, 2-2, with a perfectly placed shot under Marc-Andre Fleury’s arm.
As they had done all series, the Penguins tried to quickly counterpunch. Bryan Rust floated a pass to Nick Bonino for a chance on the doorstep of Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. One flick of the stick, and a raucous Verizon Center crowd would be silenced.
But not tonight. Tonight was the night the Capitals had waited for all series. The night when Holtby said no, energized his team and backstopped them to victory. The night when a soul-sucking goal, like the one Bonino was close to scoring, instead became a save that only increased the Capitals’ momentum.
“We got a lot of energy on those saves that he made. He was huge,” said coach Barry Trotz. “It was really uplifting on our bench.”
Holtby made 20 saves in the Capitals’ 4-2 win, which kept them alive and cut the Penguins’ series lead to 3-2. His confidence increased as the game wore on, as some of the swagger crept back in his game on a few saves.
Holtby shook off the two goals he surrendered to Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel – the latter on an unstoppable passing play from the Penguins’ power play – and slammed the door.
“I felt good all game. It was more getting over that mental hump of two goals on not that many shots. Getting over that,” said Holtby. “I take a lot of pride in my mental game, and that was something I wanted to get better at if it happened again. I did a better job staying in it [this team].”
On the other side of the ice, Fleury said he had his worst game of the postseason.
Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin ripped shots by him. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored from a bad angle.
Coach Mike Sullivan felt Fleury might be taking on too much of the responsibility for a Penguins defense that was structurally unsound in the third period, where the Capitals scored three even-strength goals.
“They were all good goals. We have to do better job in front of him,” he said.
Prior to Game 5, Fleury made 143 saves and had given up nine goals. He had been the better goalie, and had gotten in the heads of the Capitals.
But things changed in Game 5.
“I just think … he’s been standing on his head the whole series. We’ve been out-chancing them every game. He’s been saving them. He can’t do that this whole series,” said Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky, who had a goal and an assist.
From where Holtby was standing, the difference for the Capitals vs. Fleury was shot selection. Sure, you can pepper a goalie with shots as the Capitals had in the previous four games. But the quality of those chances wasn’t what Holtby felt they could have been with a little patience.
Like on Nicklas Backstrom’s goal that tied it.
“It was big. We waited and waited for that opportunity, and I think that’ll help us going forward,” said Holtby.
“We played a very patient game. I think throughout the series, I thought we were shooting too much. We were patient. We waited for good shots,” he said. “Easy shots on goaltenders are a little disheartening, and I think we got away from that.”
For one night, they did. For one night, Holtby was the better goalie, and the Capitals were the better team. But they’ll need to do it twice more to rally against their arch rivals.
“We’re still down,” said Alex Ovechkin. “Obviously we take good moments of the game and move forward.”
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