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POSTGAME NOTEBOOK: Caps 3, Knights 2

May 31, 2018
The Save – For the last dozen years, when Caps fans refers to “The Goal,” everyone knows it points to Alex Ovechkin’s improbably incredible goal in Phoenix against the Coyotes back in January of 2006.  

From Wednesday night going forward, the same can be said of Caps goalie Braden Holtby and “The Save.” 

With the Caps nursing a 3-2 lead late in the critical Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Golden Knights in Vegas, an innocent looking dump-in suddenly morphed into a crucial moment in the contest. Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore lofted the puck into the corner of the Washington zone, where it took an odd carom and bounded sharply to the right, through the crease in front of Holtby, and directly to the stick blade of Vegas center Cody Eakin. Eakin quickly fed it to Alex Tuch, who was at the top of the paint on the left side. 

As the puck reached Tuch and the Vegas forward shot at the yawning Washington net, Holtby reacted by sprawling out desperately with his right arm, thrusting the paddle portion of his stick across to cover as much area as possible. With a combination of reflex and athleticism, Holtby was able to get the fullest part of the paddle on the shot, and he was able to use his blocker to clamp the puck safely to the ice, preventing any possible rebound.

A look at the game clock showed 1:59 remaining.

Virtually everyone at T-Mobile Arena and watching on television believed the puck was headed for the back of the net, and the game would be tied at 3-3. Holtby’s denial was literally a game saver for Washington and potentially a series saver, too. The Caps hung on for a 3-2 victory, evening the series at 1-1. That one save may have made the difference between the Caps being even in the series and Vegas being up 2-0. 

Replays of Holtby’s incredible stop quickly made their way through the Internet and social media like wildfire, but to Holtby it was just another day at the office. 

“I try to disconnect myself from social media,” says Holtby. “We’re just a group trying to win hockey games, and whoever has to step up to make plays, we are all there as a team to support each other. And we’ve been getting huge plays from different guys throughout the playoffs. 

“It’s one of those things that helped us win a game, and now we move forward to the next game because we have a goal in mind that will be a lot bigger than some save on social media.” 

There’s some perspective for you.  

Holtby also continued his pattern of performing well in the wake of losses in this postseason. Reached for five goals against in Monday’s series opener – matching the most he has ever permitted in a playoff game – Holtby stopped 37 of 39 Vegas shots in Wednesday’s Game 2 win. Fifteen of those saves came in the third period, and nine of those third-period stops came while Vegas was on the power play.

“To me, it was the hockey gods,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “They evened it up from last game. We could have tied it up [in Game 1] but we didn’t. I just thought Braden was real good. But when you play the right way, the hockey gods always even it out. You know I always talk about that.  

“That was a great save obviously, with 1:59 left. You could see the emotion on our bench. Once he made that save, I knew we were going to win that game.”

Holtby’s teammates were every bit as impressed. 

“Even last game,” says defenseman John Carlson, “his goals against total was not great, but he still played amazing and kept us in at points, kept us with the lead, kept us in the game.  

“Certainly tonight I thought he played amazing, and especially that save. I’ve seen a lot of those kind of saves before, but with the magnitude of the situation and just how strong he had to be on his paddle there, that was probably the nicest one I’ve seen.” 

“I honestly thought for a second there,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, “when it bounced right out to them, I was like, ‘Oh no!’ But then I was like, ‘Oh yes!’  

“That was great – a huge save at the right time. We really needed that one, so that was a great save by him.”

The Baker’s Dozen, At Last – It took a village and about 44 years to get it done, but the Caps delivered the first Stanley Cup Final victory in franchise history on Wednesday night. 

Washington has now recorded 13 of the 16 wins needed to claim the Stanley Cup, one more victory than it has ever recorded in a single playoff year. When the Caps made their only previous trip to the Cup Final in 1998, the Detroit Red Wings swept them aside in four straight games.

Forty-Four Score – Who else but Brooks Orpik could be expected to supply the game-winning goal in the Caps’ first ever Cup final victory? It took 44 years, and No. 44 delivered midway through the second period when he scored his first goal in more than two years, since Feb. 26, 2016. 

It wasn’t just the goal, though. Orpik also delivered a monster game in other ways, delivering six hits, blocking a couple of shots and logging over 19 minutes, the second highest ice time figure he has recorded in a regulation game this spring. Orpik was on the ice before Washington’s penalty woes began early in the third period, and he stayed out on the kill and remained out on the ice when the Caps went down two men. By the time he was finally able to get to the bench, Orpik had been on the clock for 2:44, a marathon of a shift.   

Players on the bench were ecstatic when Orpik scored; he’s more respected and revered in that room than he is disrespected and diminished by those who never or rarely spend any time around the team. 

“It was pretty lively on the bench, I would say,” says Carlson. “He has done so much for this team, and he doesn’t get any credit from anyone else. The guys in here respect the hell out of him, and he’s a warrior – he comes to play every single night and he comes to practice. He gets hell from people constantly, and he is the heart and soul of this team.” 

“I screamed; my ears are still ringing,” says Caps winger T.J. Oshie. “A leader of our team and he is one of those old school, ultimate pro guys, and I’ve only played with three or four of them. He is one of those guys, and to see him get rewarded on the scoresheet is exciting to me. It feels good and I’m sure it feels great for him, too.” 

“He is the backbone of this team, I think,” says Backstrom. “He is so professional in everything he does and I think he deserves that more than anyone. And it’s nice that it was the game-winning goal.” 

Orpik’s goal ended a 220-game drought (regular season and playoffs) between lamplighters, the longest active streak of its kind in the league. In 1,128 career games (982 in the regular season and 146 in the playoffs), Orpik now has three game-winning goals, including two of them in the Stanley Cup playoffs. His previous playoff game-winner came just over five years ago when he was still with the Penguins, and it was an overtime game-winner that also clinched a first-round series win for Pittsburgh over the New York Islanders.

Man Down, Step Up – Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s franchise record 11-game scoring streak was halted in Game 2, primarily because he left the game with an upper body injury in the first period after taking a hit from Vegas defender Brayden McNabb. Kuznetsov’s streak was the longest in the Stanley Cup playoffs in eight years, and he left Wednesday’s game after six shifts totaling just 4:26.

The Caps offered no further update on Kuznetsov’s condition after the game. He is not only Washington’s leading postseason scorer with 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists), he leads the league in playoff scoring. 

Fortunately for the Caps, Lars Eller has previously proven himself to be able and willing to step up and fill in, as he did earlier in the postseason when the Caps were without the services of Backstrom, who was also out with an upper body ailment.  

Eller was involved in all three Washington goals in Game 2, scoring the first one in a four-on-four situation, and supplying the primary helper on the next two. Eller has had three three-point games in the 2018 playoffs, and they’ve come in Game 2 of each of the last three rounds. 

“You lose one of your top players on what we consider a questionable hit,” says Trotz, “and the league will look at it, but your bench sort of rallies around it. Obviously a guy like Lars Eller, Kuzy is not back and Lars has to step into that role like he did when Backy [was out] in previous series. And he just stepped up.  

“Guys said, ‘Let’s dig in.’ We use the term, ‘Everybody pulled on the rope,’ and you get an all in mentality. To me, it was one of those things that galvanizes the group. I know how resilient this group has been all year. I think that might be a turning point for us.” 

Call That Gone? – Seconds after the game’s final buzzer, Golden Knights center Erik Haula incurred a five-minute major for slashing and a 10-minute misconduct for a vicious two-handed whack on Orpik. There was a trail of blood droplets on the floor leading into the Washington locker room after the game, and Orpik did not speak with media postgame, reportedly because he was receiving treatment. 

If ejecting Haula from a game that was already over and assessing a pointless major penalty on top of that seems silly in light of a lack of any additional punishment, it’s because it is.  

Not to worry, kid. As it turns out there IS additional punishment. Haula will be lighter in the wallet, too. According to the NHL rulebook, a game misconduct also results in an automatic fine of $200.  

By The Numbers – Matt Niskanen led the Caps with 27:13 in ice time, and with 5:25 of shorthanded ice time, or roughly 83% of the time in which Vegas enjoyed the man advantage ... Six different Caps registered three shots on net in the game to tie for the team lead … Eller, Orpik and Tom Wilson each had six hits to lead Washington … Oshie led the Caps with four blocked shots … Eller won 10 of 16 face-offs (63%) … Seventeen of the 36 skaters on both sides took at least one face-off in Wednesday’s Game 2 … The Caps outhit the Knights, 46-39 … Vegas’ Jonathan Marchessault accounted for nine of his team’s 39 shots on goal.