Despite losing to their hated Eastern Conference rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, 2-1 in a shootout on Thursday night, the Washington Capitals have a little bit of a goalie controversy on their hands heading down the stretch.
Before this season young Braden Holtby thought he was going to have an opportunity to compete for Washington’s top goalie spot with Michal Neuvirth. The 22-year old Saskatchewan native was impressive at times during the 2010-2011 regular season and even earned the NHL’s first star one week. Then the Caps picked up Thomas Vokoun in free agency and suddenly Holtby’s career was in a holding pattern.
Despite a rough start earlier int he season, Holtby has rebounded with two impressive outings against two of the league’s highest scoring team, with perhaps his most impressive game coming last night against the Flyers, where he held them to just one goal and only let in two of Philadelphia’s four shootout attempts.
In total, Holtby stopped 27-of-28 shots, too bad he was opposite one of the hottest goaltenders in the NHL right now, Ilya Bryzgalov. The Russian, one time enigma on the Flyers this year, is playing probably some of the best hockey of his career right now. He was nearly perfect in the game, stopping 30-of-31 shots including a penalty shot from Marcus Johansson. If it hadn’t been for an early defensive breakdown that lead to a goal just 26-seconds into the game by Alex Ovechkin, Bryzgalov may have had a shutout.
It would take the Flyers almost 26 minutes after the Ovechkin goal to knot things up when Holtby made his only glaring mistake of the day. Claude Giroux got the edge on Dennis Wideman and was able to skate around him on a breakaway from the blue line. After moving in front of Wideman, Holtby went out and tried to poke-check the puck, but whiffed badly and Giroux was able to score on a gaping net. If Holtby stays in the net, he has a better chance to stop the puck and probably keeps the Caps in the lead.
This loss can’t be blamed solely on Holby’s bad decision though, as the Caps had some serious opportunities to take this game from the Flyers. Early in the first period, but after Ovechkin’s goal, Joel Ward was presented with a wide-open cage, but couldn’t put the puck home. Ward had been challenged by Washington Head Coach Dale Hunter to pick up his offense and a goal there would have put Washington squarely in control.
Washington heads into a pivotal game with the Winnipeg Jets on Friday that could change the landscape of the Eastern Conference playoffs dramatically. A win would pretty much eliminate the Jets from contention and Washington would keep their one-point lead on the Buffalo Sabres, even if Buffalo were to win. A loss though, coupled with a Sabres win, would allow Buffalo to take control of their destiny by moving into the eighth playoff spot and the Jets would move three-points behind the Caps with a game in hand. Needless to say, Friday is an important day for the Caps and their playoff hopes.
Regardless of who starts in net tomorrow, remember Hunter doesn’t usually like to play goalies back-to-back, based on his start Thursday, Holtby will have to be in the conversation down the stretch. Washington has been plagued by up-and-down goalie play all year and Holtby could add consistency, which may be needed if they fall out of a playoff spot on Friday.