WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 02: Braden Holtby #70 of the Washington Capitals reacts after a play against the New York Rangers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on May 2, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
They weren't here at the start of the season, but Dale Hunter and Braden Holtby will see the Caps through to the end, whenever that is.
As the postgame media scrum around Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby was dispersing Wednesday night following his team's 2-1 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, a straggling reporter walked quickly up to the 22-year-old and asked him a couple of questions, the last of which was, "Excited for another Game 7?"
The reply came back with a smile, "Can't wait."
Holtby had made 30 saves in Wednesday night's win, his seventh of the playoffs. Earlier, he had admitted that he had felt more comfortable between the pipes than at any point in the series, and by the middle of the third period, the netminder seemed to be flaring his glove on every single save. Holtby says the glove flare is a quirk in his game that he's been trying to eradicate since age 6, but in these playoffs it's very hard not to see it as a sign that he is seeing everything.
Wednesday night, Holtby was helped by a strong defensive performance that limited the Rangers second shot opportunities, kept Holtby's vision clear, and blocked 24 shots just to make life that much easier on the young netminder.
"There's always something good to say about him," said Karl Alzner, who led all Capitals defensemen in ice time, playing 23:13.
Saturday night's Game 7 will match the high-water mark from this group of Capitals, who have never been to the conference finals. If they match their feat against Boston and win a second consecutive Game 7 on the road, they would be in the NHL's final four for the first time since 1998.
If they do get there, they will get there through the efforts of guys like Holtby, Alzner, and Matt Hendricks, who played his finest game of the playoffs Wednesday night. Most notably, Hendricks won 9 of the 16 face-offs he took, the great majority of which came against Rangers superstar Brad Richards.
"Winning face-offs is very important, especially against a skilled guy like that," Hendricks said. "And all the centermen have been doing well; Nicky [Backstrom, who won 10 of 15 face-offs on the night], Brooksie [Laich, who won 8 of 15 on the night]. If you keep the puck out of their hands, it makes it easier."
There was even an Alexander Ovechkin sighting, as the captain took advantage of an untimely stumble by Ryan Callahan and a spot of puck-watching by Dan Girardi to fire an unstoppable shot past Henrik Lundqvist at 1:32 of the first period. Jason Chimera, who has played himself into big-name status this entire season, added a second at 10:59. Washington could have put the game out of reach before Marian Gaborik's consolation goal, but some steller goaltending by Lundqvist (21 saves) managed to keep New York within touching distance.
Everyone knew the effect an early goal would have on the game. Rangers coach John Tortorella will have warned his team to prepare for an early Washington surge. The fact that his team did not deal with it well (Anton Stralman was caught up-ice and tripped Jason Chimera on a break, giving the Caps a power play that led to an Ovechkin goal) was no doubt a part of the reason for Tortorella's especially snippy postgame press conference.
Coach, did you think you got the necessary effort from your team?
What about that four-minute power play in the second period?
"Sucked. It kills you. Sucked."
It seems petulant, but it isn't, really. Tortorella is as smart as any coach in the league. He knows, just as Hunter does, that this series of similar styles has produced similar results. The Rangers could have easily lost Game 3, and should have lost Game 5. The Rangers have home ice for Game 7, but if the Capitals proved anything this playoff year, it is that home ice doesn't matter.
The legacy of disappointment for these Capitals is not worth rehashing. But there are two crucial components that are new to all this. One was an Ontario farmer at the start of this season. The other was in Hershey, and engages in a pregame routine of extreme concentration and visualization. Before Game 6, the routine coincided with a music choice by the Capitals' game entertainment staff that not only matched the intensity of the moment, but the incredulity of this whole playoff run.