If it’s April, it means the Washington Capitals are in trouble. And lo, we find the Caps down 2-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets with the series shifting to Ohio. Now, Washington must find a way to claw back into the picture without the benefit of last line change and with the added anxiety of hearing a Civil War-style cannon go off every time they let in a goal.
The answer, if there is one, is Braden Holtby. The 2016 Vezina Trophy winner did not start this series, but he’s gonna have to end it if the Capitals hope to come out on top.
Of course this has been a strange series, because it always is with Washington. Coach Barry Trotz controversially started the playoffs with backup Philipp Grubauer in the crease. Grubauer had been playing much better than Holtby, who has notably struggled this season. But c’mon. Holtby is still one of the top netminders in the NHL and he looked pretty good in relief of Grubauer in Game 2. The only goal Holtby surrendered was in overtime, unfortunately, but the fault on that score lay with defenseman Jakub Jerabek for not boxing out 5-foot-11, 186-pound Matt Calvert.
Now, the Blue Jackets are a solid opponent - let’s give full credit here - but seriously, the Capitals should win this series. It’s hard not to chalk it up to some sort of choke virus that has infected the franchise. After all, this is a team that brought in Justin ‘Mr. Game 7’ Williams, only to lose to Pittsburgh in six games in 2016, then seven games in 2017. Last year, GM Brian MacLellan even went out and got the most coveted rental player on the market, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, only to see the puckmover lay an egg in the post-season (mental note: sometimes the market is wrong).
But the Capitals are not dead. Two games can be made up quickly, even if Washington must do so on the road. And Holtby should be the key.
We know Washington can score and we know the defense corps can play better. While Grubauer has been very good this season, he is not the guy you rely on to push you through the playoffs. That has always been Holtby’s job and he has the pedigree to do it. He’s a big netminder who tracks the puck well and has learned from one of the best in the business, goalie guru Mitch Korn.
While Washington’s failure to get out of the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era is so inexplicable, it’s not like Holtby has been a disaster. He wasn’t bulletproof last year, but before that, his playoff stats were actually better than his regular season numbers - which tended to be near the top of the NHL (hence the Vezina Trophy).
Holtby, not surprisingly, is an intense competitor. We know he wants to win and the challenge of outdueling fellow Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus is a great motivator, on top of the obvious aspect of getting a Cup.
From here on out, the Capitals need him to steal games. The Blue Jackets, keep in mind, have never won a playoff series in their franchise history and I can guarantee they smell blood in the water (I can also guarantee that coach John Tortorella will try to keep their heads out of the clouds by rightly pointing out they haven’t won anything yet).
Obviously Game 3 is crucial. Washington must throw everything it has against Columbus and that includes Holtby. He hasn’t been able to lift them to the conference final yet in his career, but if this team is even going to have a chance this season, he’ll be the one to get them there.