NEW YORK -- As in any series, the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers has come down to the play of the teams' starting goaltenders.
Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby have come up with remarkable saves at the timeliest of moments, but when it comes to one aspect of this best-of-7, which Washington leads 2-1 heading into Game 4 on Wednesday (NBCSN, TSN, RDS2), Holtby does hold one sizable advantage over the defending Vezina Trophy winner.
Against an aggressive Rangers team that has been keyed by its energetic forecheck, Holtby's puck-handling skills have been vital to the Capitals' potent breakout. While Lundqvist never has been known for playing the puck, Holtby occasionally has seen fit to fire a two-line pass down the wing, squashing any opportunities for the Rangers to set up in the Capitals' zone.
"It's been huge," defenseman Mike Green said of Holtby's puck-handling. "He's been great at it all year. Especially being a defenseman, it really helps out. It's another utility that we can use. Also, we don't have to go back and pick up pucks behind the net. He's making plays. Not many goalies can do that. It's impressive."
Holtby's "third defenseman" mentality has been key to the Capitals' transition game. As such, the Rangers have begun making adjustments to their dump-and-chase approach, a game plan run to perfection in recent weeks by the duo of Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan.
"There have been times in the series where they've done a lot of cross-corner dumps and soft [dumps] that basically eliminates the goalie," Holtby said. "But it can work in our favor as well."
Holtby's handiwork with the puck hasn't just frustrated the Rangers' attack. It also has helped his defensive corps, a group not known for playing an overtly physical style in either end. The extent to which Holtby is able to continue playing the puck could prove key heading into Game 4 Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
"It's important for us, for our system," Capitals coach Adam Oates said. "He handles the puck well. We work on it."