ARLINGTON, Va. -- There was no sulking. It was his job, by all rights, and another man had been given that job, had been allowed to lead his team onto the ice in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, to kick off yet another attempt at ending the Washington Capitals long and well-covered postseason struggles. And yet, Braden Holtby did not complain or lash out. He barely made a peep.
He told his coach he was there, if and when the Capitals needed him.
He worked on himself. He worked on his game. The goaltender knew that he wasn't playing his best hockey and that he needed to be better. Not that he was alone. The Capitals would need to be better than they had been if there was any hope of accomplishing anything in a season that, unlike many in recent memory, didn't feel like it would end with the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final.
"He didn't pout or wasn't a sore sport," defenseman John Carlson said on Saturday. "Just worked hard to get better and here we are. It's not a surprise."
Nor should it be.
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Holtby, who won the Vezina Trophy in 2016, is a goaltender with a history of steadiness and brilliance. He has played in 361 regular-season games (353 starts) in his eight-year career with Washington, winning 225 of them with a 2.41 goals-against average and .919 save percentage, including a 2.07 GAA and .925 save percentage in 2016-17.
But this season wasn't that, something Carlson called "really strange" to experience, and questions had arisen down the stretch as to who Capitals coach Barry Trotz would start in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He opted for Philipp Grubauer.
"I had some time to really work on some things that I never really have in the last four or five years, to work during a season on some things and really work hard," Holtby said. "Come playoff time, being on the bench for Games 1 and 2, it wasn't a big thing for me because [Grubauer] was playing so good and has all year. For me, I just wanted to come in with a positive attitude and be a good teammate in any way possible."
He lasted two games on the bench. Or not even.
In Game 2 against the Blue Jackets, Holtby replaced Grubauer, who allowed eight goals as the Capitals lost the first two games of the playoffs at home. After regaining the starting job in Game 3, he has not looked back with a 2.14 GAA and a .923 save percentage as Washington finally overcame their rival Pittsburgh Penguins on the way to the Cup Final. The Capitals lead the Vegas Golden Knights 2-1 in the best-of-7 series with a chance to take command in Game 4 at Washington on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Video: Holtby's Cup Final performance has been strong
Holtby has turned a postseason in which he did not start the first two games, in which Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was anointed the Conn Smythe winner before the series even started, in which he has been the forgotten sidekick to Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, into a Cup Final in which he might just have the signature moment.
It was, after all, a pretty good save.
With 1:59 remaining in Game 2, Holtby reached back with his stick to make a game-saving, highlight-reel save on Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch to preserve a 3-2 series-tying win for the Capitals, their first ever in the Cup Final (they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in 1998).
Video: How Braden Holtby made that big save in Game 2
"The guy's just a machine," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "Since I've been here, four years, [he has] played a heavy load in the regular season, been a top, top goalie stats-wise a couple years, but he's been in the upper group of goalies in the League for the time that I've been here.
"Good for him to take a little reset there in March toward the end of the regular season and since he came back in Game 3 of the first round, boy has he been good. Making the saves that he's supposed to make look really routine and he's made some game-changers, none better than the one with a couple minutes left in Game 2."
It was a moment that will be repeat viewing for Capitals fans all summer - especially should they win the Cup - but it also underlined how far Holtby has come from the regular season he had, one with the worst numbers of his NHL career (2.99 GAA, .907 save percentage).
"I think just like any other player, especially for goalies, confidence is the biggest thing," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "When he's confident, he's making saves where even when they're real tough opportunities, he makes it look relatively easy and he almost does it with, I hate to use the word cocky, but there's almost a cockiness to the way he makes a save."
And that affects the rest of his team. It affects how the defensemen play, how the forwards play and it is foundational to how a team reaches this point in the season. It could be seen with the run that Fleury was on for Vegas, and again with the roll that Holtby is currently on, even including the flub he made with the puck behind his net in Game 3 that led directly to the only Golden Knights goal in a 3-1 win.
Because Holtby has been confident, the Capitals have been confident, through that first round against the Blue Jackets, the second round against the Penguins, and in the conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, an outstanding offensive team that Holtby reduced to rubble with a 159:27 shutout streak to close out the series, including two consecutive shutouts in Games 6 and 7 to seal Washington's second trip to the Cup Final and first in two decades.
Video: VGK@WSH, Gm3: Holtby denies Marchessault after deke
"It's been a unique season," Holtby said. "I've learned a lot of valuable things throughout the situations, about myself, about the way hockey is now. It's changed. You have to play a little different than in the past with the speed and the way the game is mostly all offense now.
"Obviously, throughout my career of hockey playing, you know that putting too much pressure on yourself and doing too much is never that good. And I got caught up in trying to do too much and it never works too well, and it ended up snowballing.
"It was great to just have a break in February where I could really analyze myself in a game, go to work, kind of get back to those roots and just working as hard as I possibly can to figure out different things of myself and the game. It looks bad on paper, but this year I think is one of those years where I've learned more and soaked in more knowledge than previous years."
And ultimately, the regular season Holtby had won't matter if he can get two more wins with the Capitals against the Golden Knights, using that new knowledge and new understanding, using the skills that have always served him well.
Because for two months now, since he regained the job that was his, since he found himself back in the spot (and with the results) he's used to, he has given everything he has. His best self, as he puts it. Every day, on every single play, whether it's worked out or not, whether it's been the save of the playoffs, or a miscue and a goal.
Each time, though, the Capitals have been saying the same thing to themselves, the same thing that Ovechkin said in reaction that save on Tuch, "Thank god he's our goalie."
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