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Holtby feeling good about his play in return for Capitals

Goaltender felt mentally, physically refreshed in first game since March 6

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- To Braden Holtby, this wasn't about getting back his job as Washington Capitals No. 1 goalie or getting ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Holtby simply wanted to get back to feeling like his old self again.

He took a step in that direction with a 22-save performance in a 6-3 win against the New York Islanders at Capital One Arena on Friday.


[RELATED: Islanders-Capitals game recap | Ovechkin welcomed to 600-goal club with tribute video]


The numbers were a bit misleading because the Islanders scored three times on the power play, but Holtby appeared more confident than the frustrated goaltender who left the ice after being pulled in his previous start, a 4-0 loss at the Anaheim Ducks on March 6.

Getting some time to work on his game and his mental approach while backup Philipp Grubauer stepped in helped Holtby get back on track.

"It felt a lot better," Holtby said. "Not that I was feeling horrible before, but you get refreshed. It was like anything, a week off work, a holiday or something, you come back a little refreshed. Obviously, there's still things to work on, and it's not a thing that solves all problems just like that, but it is one of the tools in the toolbox to try and build my game, our team game moving forward."

Video: NYI@WSH: Holtby denies Isles with series of saves

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said before the game he was hoping for, "just a typical Braden Holtby outing." With all the power plays in the game -- the Capitals were 3-for-8 and the Islanders were 3-for-5 -- there wasn't a lot of typical flow.

But Holtby made some key saves to get his 30th win of the season, giving the Capitals a two-point lead on the Pittsburgh Penguins for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

"It was a chunky game in terms of a lot of special teams and I thought Holts made some real good saves," Trotz said. "I thought when we started pulling away and they started to inch back in when it was 4-1, he made a couple good saves that were real timely. I thought he was good. He looked really confident."

Trotz wasn't ready to name a starter in their next game, at the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday (5 p.m. ET; NHLN, NBCSP, NBCSWA, NHL.TV), but said he expects each goaltender to play in the coming week. The Capitals have 11 regular-season games remaining to pick their starter for their first game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it sounds like Trotz intends to use all of them to make that decision.

"I think you have to take it game by game," Trotz said. "The bottom line is you've got to make a decision and go with it, and if your decision is that Goalie A is a little hotter or you've just got a gut feeling, then you go with it and you have to live with it good or bad."

Perhaps the most telling moment for Holtby on Friday came after John Tavares' power-play goal with 3:46 remaining in the third period cut the lead to 5-3. Tavares' shot deflected in off Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen, the kind of unfortunate break Holtby's had trouble shaking off recently.

But Holtby had no time to regroup. Just 26 seconds later, Islanders rookie Mathew Barzal skated in on a breakaway.

Seeing an opening between Holtby's pads, Barzal shot for that spot, but Holtby got his stick there to make the save. Lars Eller's empty-net goal with 1:58 remaining ended the Islanders' hopes for a comeback.

Video: NYI@WSH: Holtby slides across to deny Ladd

"That's one of the things that I wanted, to regroup quickly and focus on the play, and the breakaway came right away," Holtby said. "So, fortunately, I made the right read and that's what I want to be there for, for the team in those situations, and that's one thing I want to keep getting better at."

Entering Friday, Holtby was 1-5-2 with a 4.82 goals-against average and .854 save percentage in eight starts since Feb. 11. His lone win was against the Toronto Maple Leafs, 5-2 in the 2018 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on March 3.

After he was pulled in the loss in Anaheim, Grubauer started four games in a row and won three of them. 

While Holtby has struggled, Grubauer has gone 7-1-0 with a 1.57 goals-against average, a .947 save percentage and one shutout since Feb. 11. For the season, Grubauer is 11-8-3 with a 2.26 GAA, .925 save percentage and two shutouts.

Following a 4-2 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 9, Holtby was 28-10-2, putting him on pace to win 43 games, which would have made him the first goaltender in League history with four consecutive 40-win seasons. Now, there's little chance of him getting to 40 wins this season.

His 3.03 GAA and .907 save percentage are the worst of his eight-season NHL career. He can make those numbers look better over the last three weeks of the regular season, but he's not going to get near his 2.07 GAA and .925 save percentage from last season.

After leading the NHL with nine shutouts last season, he has none this season. But that's not a concern for Holtby now.

"I think tonight is more the moment at hand," he said. "Don't worry about the past or future. It's just getting back to being comfortable out there and just playing. You're out there to compete and compete for your team, and that's it. You leave all the outside noise outside. That's just the mentality we can take, and this little stretch here before the playoffs is going to be fun."

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