Photo: Jacquelyn Martin
With the Capitals down 3-0 midway through Friday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz made a goalie change. He pulled star netminder Braden Holtby, the league’s leader in wins and goals against average, replacing him with backup Philipp Grubauer. Holtby slammed his stick on the bench before ripping off his mask off and kicking it down the tunnel to the locker room. No longer in control, Holtby was too agitated to sit down, watching play unfold with his hands on his hips for several minutes. It was the first time Holtby has been pulled all year.
“We’ve got so used to Braden being so strong for us that we tend to be a little loose sometimes,” Trotz told me Saturday morning. “He’s been erasing our mistakes. I was making a statement: enough’s enough. He’s been our MVP from game one on. Why are we doing this to him?”
Grubauer, playing in just his six game this season, led the Capitals to victory. He faced just seven shots, but made a game-saving pad stop on Lighting forward Vladislav Namestnikov with 12:15 left in the third period. The save kept the game within reach. Seconds later TJ Oshie scored from the far circle to put the Caps within one goal.
Washington tallied three more by the time the period was over. While Oshie got congratulatory fist bumps from the Capitals bench as he skated by, Holtby faced the other way, towards Grubauer.
“That changes the momentum of the game right there,” Holtby said. “It’s not how many you make, it’s when you make them.”
Despite the Capitals’ victory on Wednesday, there are still lessons to be learned. On all three goals Holtby allowed, his defense was mostly non-existent. Trotz admonished his team for that after the second period.
“I said ‘Let’s get one thing straight, this is not a reflection on Braden’s play, this is everyone else’s play. I’m not exposing our MVP to this anymore,'” Trotz recalled.
Holtby would gladly have put up with the trouble anyway, which is part of the reason the Caps have been able to rely on him so much over the past two years.
“I like to be a part of the team — good, bad, and otherwise,” Holtby said. “You want to keep going. There’s a reason there’s a coach making those decisions. My mind says always I just want to play. If a couple goals go in, I want to make bigger saves, better saves.”
For the last two seasons, the Capitals have been a great team. Much of that is due to Holtby’s goaltending. The 2008 fourth round pick played in 73 games last season, more than any other goaltender. He turned in one of the best postseason performances in recent memory before the Capitals’ lack of scoring finally doomed their shot at the Stanley Cup. This year, Holtby has been even more dominant, leading the Capitals to the league’s best record. The 26-year-old’s play often covers up any bad games Washington has — save for Friday.
“Holts can’t stop all the time, give us a chance all the time,” Alex Ovechkin, the team’s captain, said.
In their first 19 games this season, the Capitals gave up more than 30 shots just four times. However, in their last 12 games they’ve allowed more than 30 shots against seven times.
“We’ve talked about it for a while,” defensemen Matt Niskanen said. “We want to play better for him because we’ve felt like he’s bailed us out too often lately. We’re finding ways to win, but I think we just feel like we’re giving up way too many quality chances. We’re giving up lots of shots the last couple weeks. Ideally, we’d like to play better to lessen his workload a little bit.”
On Friday, the Caps once again found a way to win despite a subpar defensive effort. The trend is troubling, but it’s one the team fully recognizes.
“It’s no secret,” Michael Latta said. “He’s stolen games for us. Holts has bailed us out a million times.”
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