WASHINGTON, D.C. — Let’s start here. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a way of making great goalies look average.
Last round, it was Sergei Bobrovsky. He’s probably going to win another Vezina Trophy this year after leading No. 1 goalies with a .931 save percentage during the regular season. When he’s on, he’s as good as anyone.
After Round 1 against the Penguins, Bobrovsky exited the postseason with an .882 save percentage while going 1-5.
The future Hall of Famer was so pedestrian against the Penguins, finishing with a .867 save percentage in five games, there was speculation that he was done. That declaration has proven premature, as Lundqvist is showing this spring, but that’s the kind of impact the Penguins can have.
So, while analyzing the play of Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, pulled for the third period of Game 2 and currently owning an .829 save percentage in Round 2, you have to factor in the opponent.
Take Phil Kessel‘s first goal in Game 2, for example. Sidney Crosby stickhandled through his legs to gain entry into the Capitals zone before finding Kessel, who fired off a shot into an opening so small, it’s remarkable he even considered trying.
Not many players in the world could combine to make those two moves on the same play, and they happened to be on the ice at the same time, in part because of Patric Hornqvist‘s injury.
That’s certainly not on Holtby.
And that was a point a few of Holtby’s teammates tried to make after Game 2. If outsiders are concerned about his play in this series, his teammates certainly aren’t.
Capitals defenseman John Carlson was immediately defensive of his goalie when the line of questioning turned in that direction.
“I don’t know. Every goal was pretty much a breakaway, if he’s letting in something from the red line, I’ll have a different opinion,” Carlson said. “I’m sure he’s going to respond. I don’t think he played terrible.”
No, he didn’t. But that’s not the standard for Holtby. Watching him on the bench in the third period, you saw in his eyes the look of a fierce competitor who wanted to be out there making a difference. For Holtby, one of the three or four best goalies in the world, it’s not about being not terrible. It’s about being the difference.
This isn’t the standard we hold for him. It’s the standard he holds for himself.
“The playoffs are made of big moments,” Holtby explained, before turning attention to the final goal he allowed, a shot from Jake Guentzel that came on another Penguins odd-man rush. “That third goal — that’s a big moment. That’s where your goalie needs to come up with a save, and I just didn’t.”
Giving up those goals, even if they’re not entirely on his shoulders, can wear on a goalie’s confidence.
The way the loss of confidence manifests itself in a goalie can come in the slightest of hesitations, a hesitation that’s the difference between making a big save and barely letting a puck go past.
Corey Hirsch, a former NHL goalie and goalie coach, sees that in Holtby.
“I noticed on those goals — whenever there’s a shot with no pressure, and Pittsburgh has had some pretty open shots where there’s no pressure — he’s a little off his angle,” Hirsch said. “If you’re off-angle and a guy has an open shot and has time, an NHL player is going to make you pay for that. The shots on the left side, I’m a believer that you make them shoot across your body. Make them shoot far side every time. I don’t see him doing that. There might be hesitation on his part.”
That hesitation, Hirsch believes, comes from a momentary loss of confidence.
“It’s a confidence thing,” he explained. “When you don’t feel as confident, you freeze up for that second, you don’t make that shift. You freeze. … There’s a little dent in the armor there.”
That little dent is the difference of a half-inch or a split second. For the elite scorers on the Penguins, that’s all they need.
Hirsch also has noticed a tendency from Penguins shooters to target Holtby’s glove side. As soon as he drops the glove, they’re shooting.
“That’s a tactic,” Hirsch said. “When you see Kessel score like that, it’s OK. When you see other guys score like that, it’s in the scouting report.”
The bigger problem, if that’s the case, is that these Penguins shooters have the time and space to make conscious decisions about where to shoot. These playoffs have been so tight throughout because there’s usually no room for offensive players to operate. There’s so much back pressure by forwards and so much shot-blocking by everyone that goals, typically, have been hard to come by.
That hasn’t been the case often enough for the Capitals. They can take solace in that they’re outshooting the Penguins, that they’re controlling play for long stretches of time. But that comfort means nothing if you’re eliminated. Nobody on the Minnesota Wild is sitting at home content with the postseason’s best Corsi For percentage at 60.9 percent. They’re just sitting at home.
The goalie was the difference in that series, and there’s still time for Holtby to re-emerge to become the difference in this one.
“In my eyes and maybe numbers-wise, he’s one of the best goaltenders in the world,” said Capitals forward T.J. Oshie “He’s one of our leaders. He’s arguably our most valuable player.”
That’s the Capitals’ way back into this series, if he re-emerges as the Capitals most valuable player and one of the best goalies in the world. It might be the only way.