Braden Holtby made 27 saves on 30 shots to help the Caps knock off the franchise’s longest bitter rival, the Philadelphia Flyers, in Filthy by a 5-3 count. With the win, the Holtbeast became the second fastest goalie in NHL history to 250 victories doing so in 409 games. Only Montreal goaltending legend, Ken Dryden, achieved the milestone faster (380 games).
This is an impressive feat and sure, a decent part of it is the byproduct of a great team, much like Dryden had with the Habs, but Braden is a stellar goalie who passed first round (Semyon Varlamov) and second round (Michal Neuvirth) draft picks in the system along the way to seize the Caps crease, for the most part, since 2012 when Dale Hunter took over as coach and rode #70 nearly to the third round of the playoffs that spring. The only blip on the radar was the disastrous 2013-14 season where former coach Adam Oates, who doesn’t know jack about goaltending, tried to mess the Holtbeast up by changing his style and then corrupting ex-Caps GM George McPhee into allowing three goalies on the roster, including acquiring Jaroslav Halak at the 2014 trade deadline. The three headed goalie monster almost always fails and that trade for Halak was ultimately the last stupid move that McPhee and Oates would make as a part of the Capitals organization.
But back to the present, Holtby is a Stanley Cup Champion goaltender and played a huge part in that run, so he’s deserving of this position in NHL history. Anyone who read his Players Tribune article on Wednesday knows how hard he works and how mentally focused he’s become. I first met Holts in the elevator at the building formerly known as Kettler IcePlex in 2008 right after he had been drafted and was in for Caps Development Camp. The 18 year old, at the time, definitely impressed me off the ice and I took notice of him right away. As he worked his way up the system, I was able to see his focus in another off-ice situation. While covering the 2010 Calder Cup Finals in Hershey, me and other media members were interviewing several Bears players after an early series game win, including Neuvirth and the great Jay Beagle, and I watched Holts come out of the locker room, sit on the bench by his locker quietly, and just study the stat sheet intently for nearly 15 minutes. Braden didn’t even play that night or that series, but you could just see how determined he was to improve any way possible. Once he came up and played a few games during the latter portion of the Bruce Boudreau era, he quickly became the number on goalie on my depth chart and many in the Caps organization felt that way right up until Oates came along and hosed things up. Fortunately the hiring of Coach Barry Trotz and the promotion to GM of Brian MacLellan ended some mistaken goalie decisions and logic. Trotz immediately declared #70 the number one goalie and after a Stanley Cup plus two Presidents’ Trophies he’s now made history again in 2018-19.
As for Wednesday’s game itself, the Capitals came out razor sharp in this affair racing to a 2-0 first period lead. Alex Ovechkin was on a mission and he made a super pass to Tom Wilson on the doorstep to start the scoring just 5:55 into the contest. It was Willy’s career high 19th tally in just 48 games this season. Brett Connolly would then score his career high 17th goal when his shot hit the stick of the Flyers defensemen, clipped Brian Elliott’s glove, and then doinked the camera in the back of the net to make it 2-0 with 5:44 to go in the opening frame. The Caps played fast and hard and could’ve been up more after 20 minutes.
In period two, they kept the hammer down. Sean Couturier was boxed for tripping Matt Niskanen and on the ensuing power play, John Carlson made a great keep in on the right wing boards and then All Star Nicklas Backstrom slid a super cross ice pass to the Gr8 while fighting off two Flyers. Ovi was all alone in the high slot and snapped one five hole on the Flyers keeper to make it 3-0 just 2:32 into the middle stanza. It was outstainding effort and superb skill by both Carlson and Backy on that sequence. Of course, the greatest goal scorer on the planet today, and perhaps of all time, finished the play off with his unbelievable shooting prowess.
Washington did not let up and Andre Burakovsky beat Elliott short side off of the near post, again on a deflected shot (Shane Gostibehere tipped the puck after it came off of Burky’s stick), at 4:18 and that’s when Flyers interim coach Scott Gordon opted for Cam Talbot in the cage. The former Ranger and Oiler was promptly greeted with a goal against just 79 seconds later. Nick Jensen made a nice stretch pass off of the boards that Jakub Vrana out raced the Flyers defense to gather in. The Czech speedster carried the disc behind the net and then fed an all alone Bacskstrom in the slot where Nicky roofed it to make 5-0 with just under 35 minutes remaining.
From there the Caps played fairly decently until the latter stages of the period when they got caught up in a bit of a rush game. Philadelphia received a three on two with 20 seconds left and scored with just 12 ticks remaining on a dart from the high slot. It was a play that JUST CANNOT HAPPEN that late in a frame. Washington flat out stopped playing for 10 seconds and it gave the Flyers life.
Philly then won the opening faceoff for period three and Claude Giroux beat Backstrom to the net for a tap in just 10 seconds in. Suddenly we had a three goal game. Washington still did not learn that they could not afford to get into a back and forth rush affair, yet they did, and eventually the red hot Flyers, who were 17-4-2 in their last 23 games coming into Wednesday night’s tilt, scored with 12:12 remaining on a point blast through a maze of players. Washington played about 10 bad minutes in a row in this affair and they were outscored during that time, 3-0.
Coach Reirden smartly had seen enough of the riverboat gambling style of play and he called a timeout. He then demonstratively instructed his troops how he wanted to conduct the remaining dozen plus minutes. It was one-three-one time, something this club excelled at last spring en route to the Cup, and they implemented that structure well on Wednesday to secure the game from then on, which was unlike the Anaheim contest back in early December where they kept playing pond hockey against the Dirty Ducks and lost, 6-5.
Holtby did have to make a big save after it was 5-3, but that’s what great goalies do, they come up large in crunch time. After that chance, though, the Flyers didn’t really have much of an opportunity to score as the Capitals shut things down, something they need to do regularly with just 15 games to go before the playoffs.
At the end of the night, the Caps won the game and also hopefully learned some valuable lessons. First, they can’t stop playing or not start playing at the commencement of a period. Second, when leading they have to make sure they don’t get dragged into a rush game. Too many times all three forwards were caught deep in the Flyers zone and that’s just not smart hockey. Third, once they went to their one-three-one neutral zone lock down they really gave the Flyers nothing, so it was good reinforcement for the squad that they can still go to that structure to successfully close out a game.
Credit the Flyers for not quitting, their season was on the line, so they weren’t going away easily, but Philadelphia has no time for moral victories. They are now seven points out of a playoff spot and are pretty much done for 2018-19. The Capitals do play them two more times and those games, regardless of records or standings implications, are always a battle. Many lifelong Capitals fans despise the former Broad Street Bullies so it’s always good to beat that team, especially in their own barn.
So on Thursday, Caps Nation can feel good, they are back in first place with a 39-21-7 (85 points) record and they are coming off a nice educational triumph over their longest archrival.
As I almost always write after a win over the despised Flyers, the air is cleaner, the drinks go down smoother, and the food definitely tastes better the next day!
Notes: Washington out shot attempted Philly, 64-54, and led the shots on goal total, 35-30…the Caps were once again creamed on face-offs, 32-14. Lars Eller was the best Cap at 6-7…with the big lead Coach Reirden was able to pretty much roll the lines, especially on defense. Niskanen led the blue liners in ice time with a low total of 21:01 and Brooks Orpik played the least at 16:33. Wilson led the Caps forwards in time on ice with 19:34…Dmitry Orlov, who had two bad passes that led to early goals in the games in the Big Apple, was fabulous in this affair with two assists and he was plus three in 20:43. He and Niskanen really were stellar on defense in this one, which is very encouraging…Carl Hagelin played on the third line again and was excellent picking up an assist in 13:40 of ice time…next up for the Caps are the Devils at Capital One Arena on Friday night at 7 pm.