For perfectly understandable reasons, a lot of the Capitals’ run to this Cup Final has been through the prism of “What does this mean for Alex Ovechkin?”
Look, Ovechkin has been there since 2005-06 and tasted naught but playoff defeat. Every Washington postseason flameout was, in fact, viewed in too many corners as an Ovechkin flameout, and so for the Capitals to overcome their demons — in large part through Ovechkin’s 22 points in 19 playoff games — feels as much like a personal victory as a collective one.
Moreover, that the Caps lost so much talent this past summer and, despite being worse in most facets of the game in terms of “process,” but have still far surpassed previous achievements is kind of funny, but ultimately doesn’t matter much. It’s not the journey, in this case. It’s the destination.
But lost in the deserved praise for Ovechkin and, to a lesser extent, Nick Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov is the fact that few have acknowledged Braden Holtby being a huge reason the Caps got to where they got to after starting the postseason opening and closing the door for defensemen coming off the ice. Holtby is up to .924 in these playoffs across 18 appearances, 17 of them starts, and the Caps have won all but five of his starts. Were it not for Marc-Andre Fleury stonewalling the entire Western Conference, Holtby would have a very legitimate case for the Conn Smythe, especially given how this season went.
You’ll recall that Holtby started on the bench because, by all appearances in the regular season, he deserved to be there. Just .907 in 54 games, which are both inexplicable numbers. The former is the worst of his career in an 82-game season by a whopping 13 points, and that he got into 54 games anyway speaks to the fact that, well, he’s a career .920 goalie and you gotta let a guy work through his issues. He’s only 28, after all.
And the thing is, Holtby has pretty much always elevated his game in the postseason. His career .919 in the regular season is one of the best of the cap era, but his .930 in the playoffs is an incredible feat. The fact that the Capitals lost in the second round when he cleared .940 — NINE FORTY! — two postseasons in a row speaks to how dismal the Capitals’ offensive performances were in the past. This is a guy who entered this postseason with a career playoff record below .500, despite being .931 in 59 appearances. Just incredible.
So now, in the midst of another perfectly great postseason run, Holtby’s team is very much in the Cup Final because he has been, well, Holtby again. The number of scoring chances he’s faced per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 time? It’s up from the previous two playoffs? The number of high-danger chances is the third-highest in his playoff career. And yet the number of goals he’s allowing — both on those chances and in general — are at some of the lowest levels ever seen in his career. He’s not doing Fleury numbers, because apparently only 2017-18 Marc-Andre Fleury is even capable of that, but he’s not far off, either.
You can make an argument that last year, when Holtby was .909 in the playoffs, he was certainly a contributing factor in their loss. He really only had two good games against the Penguins in seven tries, and that’s not gonna get it done at all. But also those last two Penguins teams were destroyers of worlds, and then they ran into this Caps Team Of Destiny, which, what can ya do? You can only beat the same team in the playoffs so many times in a row before they beat you. Holtby, for the record, was .921 in the Pittsburgh series, this after going .932 against Columbus and winning all four games he started.
The reason the Capitals lost in previous playoff runs were almost never down to Holtby, though: shooting percentages of 7.6, 5.4, 6.0, and 7.3 very much were. To overcome that kind of shooting inefficiency, even going .940 isn’t always going to get it done. Which is an incredible thing to have to say, but it’s absolutely true.
In his entire career, Holtby really hasn’t had too many fallow stretches, and frankly it’s odd that the worst of them happened to come along in last year’s playoffs and this year’s regular season. Much like Fleury’s run, it also doesn’t matter much at this point what you expect his future performance looks like. We’re now talking about just seven games that will potentially define Holtby’s legacy as one of the best goalies of his era.
Holtby is eighth in save percentage among goalies with at least 300 appearances since 2010-11, behind a list of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers. Few have been this consistently good, and even being eighth, that’s just two points of save percentage behind Roberto Luongo’s league-leading .921. It’s a pretty tightly packed cluster, but they’re pretty much all great, and again, Holtby is the only goalie — in that group or overall — to go .930-plus in the postseason during that stretch.
I think everyone knows Holtby is great, and he had that easy Vezina win a couple years ago to back up his bonafides. But as much as the hockey world focuses on playoff failures in Washington, it has mostly ignored his incredible playoff success. This year, two years ago, five years ago.
It’s nice not to be The Guy, because without Ovechkin maybe Holtby shoulders a little more of the blame (however unfairly). But whatever success Washington has had in this postseason has largely come because Holtby has been his usual phenomenal self. Which isn’t bad considering he started the playoffs on the bench.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.
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