Arlington, Va. — Alex Ovechkin covered his eyes with his gloved hands in disbelief. Barry Trotz hid his disbelief inside.
Chandler Stephenson had the perfect view and didn’t like the odds. The net was wide open and Braden Holtby reached his stick across and stopped Alex Tuch’s shot in the final minutes to save the game.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no, no, no,’” Stephenson said. “And then his paddle was there and he made the save and I just couldn’t believe it.”
Holtby’s unbelievable move might go down as one of the most important moments in Stanley Cup history. It allowed the Washington Capitals to even the final against the Vegas Golden Knights and served as further evidence of Holtby’s dominant playoff run.
Most of the buzz going into the Cup Final surrounded Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, a deserved Conn Smythe favorite who already has two championship rings. But Holtby stole the show in making 37 saves in Game 2 and returned to his career-long playoff dominance after allowing five goals on 33 shots in a Game 1 that was far from goalie-friendly. It’s the kind of play his Capitals teammates have come to expect this time of year.
“The guy’s just a machine,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “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.”
Holtby is not impressed.
Trotz has watched “the save” a handful of times, and Holtby has analyzed it but believes “there’s a lot more saves that I’ve made even these two games that I like a lot more than that one.” The laser-focused 2016 Vezina Trophy winner is far more worried about how to not need to make that desperate of a stop in Game 3 Saturday night and beyond.
“You hope that next time you get more of your body behind it and give it less chance of going in,” Holtby said Friday. “You try and find little areas where you can limit the chance of the puck going in instead of just hoping it doesn’t.”
The 28-year-old doesn’t make saves on hope. Since he made his NHL playoff debut as a rookie in 2012, Holtby has a 2.04 goals-against average and .929 save percentage — fourth- and second-best all-time among goalies with at least 50 games of experience.
In other words, Holtby is no one-save pony. In these playoffs, he’s 13-7 with a 2.19 GAA and .921 save percentage since replacing Philipp Grubauer in Game 2 of the first round.
“Thank God he’s our goalie,” Ovechkin said. “He’s over there when we need him.”
Holtby wasn’t where he needed to be in February, when he had a stretch of 11 games in which he allowed 41 goals and took some time off to “reset.” He worked with goaltending coach Scott Murray on some technical adjustments, got his mind right and has felt a noticeable change since.
“It was more a mental thing,” Holtby said. “Every year’s different, every situation, and I was just getting to a point where I was seeing the play one step ahead of it instead of waiting for it to come, and just being a little bit more patient and expecting the unexpected.”
It doesn’t get more unexpected than the weird bounce late in Game 2 that preceded his save on Tuch. Maybe that puck goes in 99 times out of 100, but Holtby has shown the ability to make the unpredictable save that stuns friends and foes alike.
“Saves like the one in the third period definitely make him a tough goaltender to beat,” former Capitals and current Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “He’s never out of a save. He’s a guy that can recover well, he’s got quick feet and he’s just very athletic.”
From the other end of the rink, Fleury — who has allowed seven goals in the series and not been nearly as unbeatable as he was in the first three rounds — can admire Holtby’s play even if he doesn’t like it.
“I think it’s an awesome save,” Fleury said. “I don’t appreciate it, though. I’d rather it be a goal.”
Holtby has done a spectacular job of not only limiting goals but making almost every save on shots he has been able to see. Even if teammates are watching through their fingers on the bench, they appreciate that and are uplifted by it.
“He steps up in the big moments,” defenseman Christian Djoos said. “The saves he makes, in playoffs you need it.”
Stanley Cup Finals
Series tied 1-1
Game 1: Vegas 6, Washington 4
Game 2: Washington 3, Vegas 2
Saturday: at Washington, 8 p.m. (NBCSN)
Monday: at Washington, 8 p.m. (NBC)
Thursday: at Vegas, 8 p.m. (NBC)
x-Sunday, June 10: at Washington, 8 p.m. (NBC)
x-Wednesday, June 13: at Vegas, 8 p.m. (NBC)