Braden Holtby Walls Off the Sabres in a 2-1 Capitals Triumph

December 21, 2018 | Ed Frankovic

“All in all it’s just another brick in the wall”

“All in all you’re just another brick in the wall”  – Pink Floyd

Braden Holtby put on a goaltending clinic on Friday night at Capital One Arena stopping 36 shots, many of which were of the ten bell variety, while Chandler Stephenson scored shorthanded, and then Tom Wilson potted the game winning tally to lead the Capitals to a 2-1 victory over the vastly improved Buffalo Sabres.

Simply put, if Holtby is not the Caps goaltender on this evening, Washington most certainly loses the hockey game. Braden was that good.

“He’s a leader on and off of the ice. He’s our backbone every night,” was how Willy described the Capitals savior in goal after the contest to Smokin’ Al Koken and per Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post, Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was absolutely fabulous in this affair, had the following to say about the Holtbeast.

“He’s a god, and he’s always saving our ass.”

Washington, who lost a tough one to the Penguins at home on Wednesday night, 2-1, in a game they dominated for long stretches (outshot attempted Pittsburgh, 77-46, and those numbers were indicative of the play), needed a win to keep pace in a Metropolitan Division that is tightening up. They would get it to improve to 21-10-3 (45 points) and they lead the second place Columbus Blue Jackets by four points.

Early on the Capitals skated well and had the territorial advantage, but as they did on Wednesday versus their archrivals, they struggled to hit the net on their chances. Washington had to settle for a 0-0 first period in which there weren’t a ton of scoring opportunities for either team.

That all changed in period two where the game opened up a bit. Jonas Siegenthaler took a penalty just 2:37 into the middle frame when the Caps players, except for their all world goaltender, appeared to have stayed in the locker room listening to Baby It’s Cold Outside by the late, great Dean Martin. The way they played to start that second stanza also indicated that they might have been enjoying some of Dean’s favorite adult beverages during the intermission.

Anyways, the much maligned penalty killing unit, which was effectively dented all three times on three tries against the Sabres just six days ago, was great in not allowing any quality chances on Wilson’s first period hooking penalty. They then used that momentum and confidence gained to take it to 11 on their next PK, scoring shorthanded. Nic Dowd did his best Phil Mickelson imitation with a gorgeous flop shot out of the Caps zone that Chandler Stephenson, who was scratched on Wednesday against the Pens, raced to gather up in the offensive zone. Stephenson skated in with the puck and beat Carter Hutton over the shoulder with some nice top shelf cheese at the 2:50 mark.

The remainder of the period saw lots of chances both ways, with the Capitals “taking” a 2-0 lead, but due to a quick whistle by the zebras, a tuck in goal by Kuznetsov on the power play that certainly appeared to be over the line was not allowed. Washington’s power play looked good on that attempt, but once again, it was mostly a disaster on this evening going 0 for 4. The set up is too stagnant right now and the players simply aren’t working hard enough to generate the quality looks we are used to seeing from this unit. Perhaps going to a simplified structure where they put bodies in front of the net (cough, cough, Top Line Tommy) and fire away with the intent of scoring off of a tip, a screen or a rebound would be an idea for the second unit?

Washington would fail to score on both power plays they had in the middle frame and Buffalo started to bring a heavy forecheck that was causing lots of Caps turnovers in the defensive and neutral zones. Holtby made several big stops, including coming out nearly to the defensive blue line to prevent Conor Sheary from getting a breakaway after an errant pass by Jakub Vrana in the offensive zone. That was a crazy sequence, but it was indicative of the night Braden was having, he was going to do whatever he could do to prevent the Sabres from lighting up the scoreboard like a pinball machine.

Heading into the final frame, the Caps had a 1-0 lead, but a very poor and LONG shift by Alex Ovechkin (1:12) and T.J. Oshie (1:04) resulted in the Sabres scoring off of a bounce in front of the net that Holtby had no chance to stop. Ovi, who only had five shot attempts (1 SOG) and frankly just didn’t have it on this night, decided against an opportunity to take a neutral zone line change and then found himself hemmed in his own end. With his tank on empty, the Sabres moved the puck around until they finally worked hard and long enough to push one past the Caps Stanley Cup winning goalie.

Buffalo then received a power play just 23 seconds after the Johan Larsson tally, but the Caps penalty killing unit stepped up big time to preserve the tie.

That set the stage for Kuzy, who had his best game in weeks because he was skating and wanting the puck, to steal the biscuit from Hutton behind his own cage and backhand the disc to Willy in the lower right wing circle. Tom buried it for the game winner and his 10th goal in just 15 games this season with only seven minutes left. Kuznetsov was fantastic and when he competes like that, he’s easily in the top five players in the league. That line, with Kuzy, Willy, and the super fast Jakub Vrana, was the Caps best one against Buffalo.

As for the top line, they looked sllllooooowwwww. I’m not sure what was up with that trio, but perhaps it might be time for Coach Todd Reirden to go back to the top nine forward group that won them the Stanley Cup last June?

Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson

Vrana-Backstrom-Oshie

Connolly-Eller-Burakovsky

Andre Burakovsky returned after being in the press box for four games and he was decent. He battled hard and skated well, but his timing is understandably off. He certainly deserves to stay in the lineup though, and getting him going must be a priority going forward.

On the back end, defensemen Madison Bowey had one of his better games logging 16:24. That allowed Coach Reirden, who played John Carlson over 29 minutes on Wednesday, to cut Carly’s ice time back to a much more sustainable 23:47. With the Capitals headed to Ottawa in a back to back situation, it was important that the ice time was spread around better than what we saw against the Penguins in the 2-1 defeat.

Buffalo had several more opportunities to tie things up late in period three, but Holtby, who tweaked something with just over two minutes left, but remained in the game, was a wall in net and would not allow his club to be beaten just four days before Christmas. It was his present to his team, and based on the quotes from Willy and Kuzy, they certainly appreciated it.

All Hail the Holtbeast!

Notes: The Caps will face Ottawa at 7:00 pm in Canada’s capital on Saturday night. The Sens played in New Jersey on Friday and were smoked, 5-2. So both teams will travel overnight and then play their last tilt before the NHL shuts down from Monday through Wednesday for the Christmas break. Pheonix Copley will almost surely get the start against the Senators which gives the Holtbeast five full days to recover from the minor tweak he suffered as well as the heavy workload he faced against Buffalo…the Capitals play the Hurricanes on December 27th at Capital One Arena…the Caps were outshot attempted, 72-50, in this one. The Sabres robbed some teams in their offseason trades (see St. Louis and Carolina) and now they have a squad that almost surely should make the postseason. They are a fast and very good hockey team…Washington won the faceoff battle, 28-23. Nicklas Backstrom was 14-6…Rasmus Dahlin was -2 and made a stupid dive onto Holtby very late in the game to move what would’ve been an offensive zone faceoff for Buffalo into the neutral zone. That’s a rookie mistake there and probably should’ve been a penalty…Vrana (5 SOG) and Wilson (4 SOG) had 9 of the Capitals 24 shots on goal.