BOSTON – Less than a minute after Mike Knuble gave the Capitals a 3-2 lead early in the third period, the Bruins had a golden opportunity to tie the game right back up. Milan Lucic collected a bouncing puck off the end boards and quickly sent a cross-crease pass to Tyler Seguin.
The second-year forward appeared to have an open net, but rookie netminder Braden Holtby slid across just in time to get his skate on the puck and preserve the one-goal lead. The Capitals went on to win, 4-3, and now return home for Sunday’s Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead.
“It bounced off the back boards and kind of happened quick,” Holtby said of the play. “They threw it out front and I just kind of read it last minute and got a toe on it. Probably the very last piece of metal on my skate.”
The save — perhaps his best of the series — added to the 22-year-old goalie’s quickly-growing legend. Holtby now has a .946 save percentage in the series, second only to the Kings’ Jonathan Quick among goalies who have played at least three games in this year’s playoffs.
Capitals players and coach Dale Hunter said before the series that they had confidence in Holtby’s abilities, but it was easy to dismiss the comments as guys just saying the right thing or trying to make Holtby feel comfortable. Now when they say it, there’s no dismissing it.
“He’s just playing steady and guys are playing hard in front of him,” Knuble said. “He’s making the saves he needs to make, and that’s all you can ask for from your goalie. Make the saves you’re supposed to make, and the odd one that you’re not supposed to make, too.”
Although Holtby gave up three goals Saturday, including a couple he might have wanted back, he made several big saves when he needed to and never looked rattled. He wound up with 34 stops in the game and has now made at least 34 saves in all three of the Capitals’ wins.
While Holtby has had to make a number of highlight-reel saves this series, such as the one on Seguin, his defense has also done a good job of forcing the majority of the Bruins’ shots to come from the outside. Knuble credited that to Hunter’s defense-first system finally being embraced by the team.
“It took 60 games for Dale to get his system in here,” Knuble said. “It’s very conservative, much more so than what we were doing here before. It was a little bit more offensively-tilted. Now we’ve been a strong defensive team. It’s tough. You have offensive guys here, guys who have made their careers playing offensively and scoring goals. Now you’re asking them to block shots and dump pucks out, when they’re so used to trying to make something happen. There’s nobody not buying in.”
Leading up to Game 5, the Bruins talked about how they needed to get more traffic in front of Holtby and make his job tougher. After Saturday’s loss, coach Claude Julien said his team succeeded in making it tougher for Holtby, but Benoit Pouliot noted that it’s still a work in progress.
“We were trying to get in front of him. We were trying to get there,” Pouliot said. “We know we have to do that. He’s been playing well. It’s just a matter of putting pucks at the net. We get a lot of shots every game. We just have to create a little more traffic.”
With Sunday’s Game 6 starting at 3 p.m., the Bruins don’t have time to change anything up from a strategic standpoint. They know they just have to work harder to establish that net-front presence. Perhaps having their backs up against the wall will provide them with the desperation they’ve lacked for much of this series.
“We don’t hang our heads,” said Zdeno Chara. “We just have to focus on tomorrow’s game. That is the biggest game of the season. … It’s as simple as that. We can’t be thinking about anything else.”