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The Save: Breaking down Braden Holtby’s miraculous stop in Capitals’ Game 2 win

It was a game-saving stop with mere minutes remaining in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final, and while Braden Holtby could have avoided the whole thing altogether, it appears the hockey gods were on his side.

LAS VEGAS – When asked about ‘The Save’ late in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz chalked it up to the hockey gods. After all, Lars Eller couldn’t convert an open-net tap-in late in Game 1 that would have tied the score, so like NHL referees, they found a way of evening things up.

“You could see the emotion on our bench,” Trotz said. “Once he made that save, I knew we were going to win the game.”

And if the Washington Capitals go on to win the Stanley Cup, people may very well be talking for decades about that save and how it saved the Capitals’ season. It was spectacular to be sure, it was crucial and it was a prime example of what a goalie can accomplish when he battles and doesn’t give up on a puck.

When asked about it after Game 2, Holtby didn’t appear to want to make too big a deal about it. Part of the reason for that is he’s humble and grounded. But there’s a good chance that he knows deep down that he was incredibly fortunate to make that save. And more importantly, he likely realizes that he did pretty much everything wrong on that play aside from diving across his crease and getting his paddle and blocker on the puck.

Steve Valiquette is a former NHL goaltender who is also a goaltending consultant, runs a goaltending school, is a television analyst and an advanced stats analyst who breaks down every scoring chance in every game in the NHL. And as far as he’s concerned, the play develops because Holtby is in the wrong position from the second the puck leaves Shea Theodore’s stick on the dump in. That puts Holtby behind the play and leads to a series of events where Holtby only recovers when he makes the dive to make the save. Valiquette calls it the performance loop, which starts with the proper angle, depth and squareness to the puck. “When you get behind in a sequence,” Valiquette said, “you never catch up. His performance loop has broken down.”

Much of that is due to mental and physical fatigue. Game 2 of the final was the 74th game Holtby has played this season. There were just two minutes left in a game where he was far busier than the guy at the other end of the ice. That save was the 37th of 39 shots the Golden Knights took in the game. “If that’s two minutes into the hockey game, that’s one he would have played completely differently and better,” Valiquette said. “But it wasn’t. He was completely broken down. But he finds a way to fight through it and make a save.”

At the risk of making this into a Zapruder film, let’s take a look at each sequence:

The dump in: It all starts here, according to Valiquette. If Holtby is on his right post at this moment, there’s a good chance this play doesn’t even develop. Holtby makes the right decision at the right time not to come out of his net, but by not staying on his right post, he puts himself behind the play and doesn’t have the right post to push off to get to the other side of the crease when the puck takes the wild bounce. “If he had been on his right post, he would have been able to follow that play, even off the back carom through his crease because he would have been on the puck,” Valiquette said.

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The wild bounce out to Cody Eakin: If he’s on the post, he stays on the puck as it goes through the crease, and he uses the post to push off to get ahead of the next sequence before it develops. “So he’s late,” Valiquette said. “He’s dead. Now he’s really behind. And now it squirts loose and he’s late and he’s frozen and he’s stuck physically and mentally.”

The pass from Eakin to Alex Tuch: Full scramble mode now. Instead of being tight to his left post, Holtby should be above the post taking a better angle and challenging. But because he’s late to the party, he’s too deep in his net and he’s out of position. It’s actually not even a deceptive pass, but Holtby is unable to track it because he’s so badly out of position. “Holtby commits down to the ice. Why?” Valiquette said. “Because he’s behind from when the puck was at the red line. When you get behind you just don’t catch up.”

The shot by Tuch from eight feet out: Valiquette pointed out that, according to his analysis, there were exactly 99 passes from that exact spot on the ice to a player where Tuch was positioned and 55 of them ended up being goals. So even though there’s a 55.6 percent probability a goal will be scored, the save can be made with proper positioning. It’s not always a gimme and that save can be made. But it should have been in this case because Holtby was so far out of position. To his credit, though, he fixes everything by diving across and fighting the fatigue to somehow get to that puck.

So actually, perhaps it was the hockey gods who made it all possible. “For all the sh– he’s been through, he deserves the hockey gods a little bit,” Valiquette said of Holtby. “That guy has been blood, sweat and tears for a long time and he deserves some of that.”

ORPIK AND ADVANCED STATS

It’s pretty clear the Capitals are a little tired of hearing about Brooks Orpik’s fairly hideous advanced stats numbers. They know how maligned he is and that’s why they were so happy when he scored his first goal in more than two years to give the Capitals a 3-1 lead in Game 2. The goal would go on to be the game-winner. For right now, that’s the only number that matters.

“How was our Corsi tonight? Did it have any effect on the game?” said Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen. “I’ve hated that stat when mine was good and I’ve hated that stat when mine was bad. Whatever. He takes a beating on that, but I don’t think anybody in here gives a crap.”

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