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Capitals' Holtby has edge over Penguins' Murray

Goalie's positioning, puckhandling, post play provide advantage for Washington

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

Goaltending plays an integral part in the Stanley Cup Playoffs so is breaking down the battle between the pipes in each series this season, charting goals to find strengths, weaknesses and targetable tendencies.

So much for concerns that any late-season slip in Braden Holtby's play would show up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

Holtby, whose statistics slid over the final three months of a season that saw him match Martin Brodeur for the NHL single-season record with 48 wins, looked more like his unbeatable pre-Christmas self in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Philadelphia Flyers. He allowed five goals in six games with a 0.84 goals-against average and .968 save percentage, including 26 saves in a 1-0 win in Game 6 to clinch the series. 

The Capitals face a new challenge in the second round, trying to figure out Pittsburgh Penguins rookie Matt Murray because there isn't a lot of NHL game film for Washington's coaches to study.

Murray, who played 13 games in the regular season, returned from injury for Game 3 of the first round against the New York Rangers. He gave up four goals over his first three NHL playoff games (3-0, 1.33 GAA, .955 SV%). Without enough NHL goals against to find a lot of clear cut trends, the Capitals will have to rely more on breaking down a style that has some similarities to Flyers goalie Michal Neuvirth, who stopped 103 of 105 of their shots over the final three games of the first round.

POSITIONING: Holtby is often described as athletic, but his improvements the past two seasons can be attributed to relying on those natural gifts less often. His positioning is more contained and his movements more controlled, which means less reaching and fewer exploitable tendencies. He rarely wanders far from the top of his crease but will get to the edge of it on shots from the point, which combined with a tendency to pull up on high shots in a way that also narrows his butterfly, can leave him exposed on pucks that bounce to the side, something that accounted for two of the Flyers' five goals in the first round.

Video: WSH@PHI, Gm6: Holtby makes glove save through traffic

Murray plays a similarly controlled positional game, and like Holtby will take a little extra ice just beyond the crease and retreat slightly on rush chances. But Murray can get a little flat with these movements, which has left him vulnerable to well-placed high shots on the far side a few times this season, including a Rick Nash partial break over the glove in Game 3 against the Rangers. Goalies often move better one way than the other and for most it's to the glove side. Murray gets better rotation into angle moving to his blocker, and is more likely to come across flat, sometimes even backing across, to the glove, which can put him behind on quick plays.

Advantage: Because he's more consistent with his movements in both directions, Holtby.

BLOCK/REACT THRESHOLD: Holtby, who narrowed his stance the past couple of years, is at his best reacting from his skates, waiting out the release before shifting his body into shots rather than pushing down to the ice before reacting out. This can leave him prone to against-the-grain deflections that catch him moving the wrong way, and the above-mentioned tendency to pull up with his torso when he goes into more of a "blocking save" on these shots can also slightly slow his lateral recovery. 

Video: Matt Murray denies two

This is where the similarity to Neuvirth comes in for Murray, who has been at his best tracking down on shots from an active, engaged stance so cut at the waist that the Penguins logo disappears behind the top of his pads. Murray maintains active, forward hands from here and has gone to more of a fingers-up glove position late in the season to further limit what shooters see up high. From this stance, he takes straight lines with his hands, closing on high shots rather than pulling away from them, something that happens more when he gets caught in an upright stance and starts pushing to the ice with his knees.

Advantage: It isn't by much but because of how he tracks and moves laterally out of that more active stance (and assuming he stays in it after coming up a bit in Game 5 against New York), Murray.

PUCKHANDLING: Holtby is among the best in the League when it comes to the ability to make long passes and start plays out of his own end, but doesn't handle the puck as much as you might expect given his puck skills. He uses it to stay engaged while facing lower shot totals, something he needed against the Flyers, but is careful not to do too much, settling for setting up breakouts with simple plays. Murray simply hasn't been as active, even in terms of stopping and setting up dump ins, early in his career.

Advantage: Because he plays it more often is more proven and has a playoff assist already, Holtby.

POST PLAY: Holtby has improved his mobility out of Reverse-VH on the blocker side post and appears more selective when using it overall, which reduced his exposure to high shots from sharp angles in previous seasons. Murray also prefers Reverse-VH for post play and is similarly mobile moving into and out of it without defaulting prematurely or staying down too long when plays move higher in the zone. His down low coverage is excellent, with a wide butterfly flare that keeps his pads tight to the ice even when he gets stretched out wide. But a tendency to extend low laterally out of Reverse-VH leaves Murray more vulnerable up high and to far-side one-timers on passes from behind the net, and his preference for going paddle down could leave him exposed high on the blocker side against the Capitals' skilled players.

Video: WSH@PHI, Gm6: Holtby makes clutch saves in the 3rd

Advantage: Because Murray has a few slightly more targetable trends, Holtby.

SCORING TRENDS: Most of Murray's exposure has been documented already, including getting flat on far-side rush shots, and dipping the blocker shoulder when he goes paddle down in tight and on his right post. The fact he moves better to his blocker side should help against a Capitals power play that likes to set up for Alex Ovechkin's one-timer from the left circle, but he can get caught sliding into shots and it leaves him vulnerable on tips the other way. The way Murray tracks and closes down on high shots also tends to create more rebounds back out in front of him, rather than being caught clean or steered into corners.

Well-timed traffic that forces Holtby to pick a side because he looks around, not over, screens, is one way to get him moving the wrong way and turn that tendency to push into shots from a strength to a weakness. It led to two of Philadelphia's five goals, but even then it usually takes a perfect shot because he works daily at managing those situations and is so good at finding a release and moving into that space. And as well as he readjusts and stays over his knees on recoveries during scrambles, Holtby still wears his pads really tight, which leaves a gap under them when he does reach, like on Jakub Voracek's goal in Game 2.

Advantage: Because the few types of chances that lead to his exposure are harder to create, Holtby.

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