COLUMBUS -- Braden Holtby didn't just win his first start of the Eastern Conference First Round for the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, the goaltender got his job back too.
Holtby on Wednesday was named starter for Game 4 at Nationwide Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN, TVAS2, FS-O, NBCSWA), one day after making 33 saves in a 3-2 double-overtime win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"I don't think there's any doubt about that," said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, whose team trails the best-of-7 series 2-1.
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Trotz made the difficult decision before the start of the series to go with Philipp Grubauer based on how the two goalies played down the stretch. Grubauer started 10 of the Capitals' final 16 regular-season games because Holtby, the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner and finalist last season, was struggling.
Over that stretch, Grubauer went 7-3-0 with a 2.31 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and two shutouts.
Holtby was 34-16-4 during the regular season, but his 2.99 GAA and .907 save percentage were the worst of his NHL career. He went through a rough eight-start stretch from Feb. 11- March 6, when he was 1-5-2 with a 4.82 GAA and .854 save percentage and pulled three times, but rebounded to go 5-1-0 with a 2.67 GAA and .911 save percentage in his final six regular-season starts.
Video: WSH@CBJ, Gm3: Holtby kicks out pad to stone Atkinson
Trotz said when he told Holtby his decision to start Grubauer in Game 1 against the Blue Jackets, he handled it like a professional and a team player, telling him, "If I get a chance to get back in the net, I'll stop the puck. But I'm in. I understand and I'm ready if you need me."
"That said a lot about his character and a lot about him," Trotz said. "That's one of the things that sort of endears you to Braden. He didn't let ego get in the way or anything like that. It was about winning, and that's what we've been trying to cultivate here for the last number of years."
Holtby didn't have to wait long for an opportunity to get back in the Capitals net. Grubauer allowed eight goals on 41 shots in the first two games for an .837 save percentage and 4.55 GAA, and was pulled after two periods during a 5-4 overtime loss in Game 2.
After Holtby finished by stopping seven of the eight shots he faced, Trotz started him in Game 3 and was rewarded with a vintage Stanley Cup Playoff performance. His .932 save percentage and 1.98 GAA are the best among active goaltenders with at least 20 postseason appearances.
Holtby stopped the final 17 shots he faced after Artemi Panarin's 2-on-1 goal 4:12 into the third period tied the game 2-2, but he wasn't satisfied. He thought he should have stopped rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois' shot from the right circle that tied the game at 1-1 at 11:18 of the second period.
Video: WSH@CBJ, Gm3: Holtby turns away Panarin's chance
"That first goal I just got fooled by his release a little bit," Holtby said. "That's one I would like to have. But it's a good game, good team effort, and now we focus moving forward."
Trotz said that Holtby going through this struggle and coming out the other side might help him grow as a player and a person. It also earned him respect among his teammates.
"He's a competitor, one of our leaders," Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. "I think the season got away from him a little. It wasn't like he was playing badly, you know? He drops a couple games, [Grubauer] comes in and is playing phenomenal, and then you have that kind of controversy. That's hard on a goalie. They're good friends, but it's hard when you have a guy right behind you who's playing unbelievable. You maybe fight the pucks a little more.
"But I think [Game 3] looked like the [Holtby] that we all know. It's great to see."
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