WASHINGTON, D.C. — In their Game 3 loss to the Boston Bruins, the Washington Capitals came unhinged defensively and behaviorally, engaging the Bruins in physical battles and losing focus. Their top center, Nicklas Backstrom, was suspended for one game after a match penalty at the final buzzer. Their rookie netminder, Braden Holtby, looked shaky for the first time in the postseason.
In their 2-1 Game 4 victory over the Bruins, it was Holtby that returned to form and, in the process, kept the Capitals composed and collected in a 44-save performance.
"He makes it very calm for the rest of us," said forward Brooks Laich, after his team knotted the Eastern Conference quarterfinal at 2-2. "If we gave up a shot, we know Holtz if gonna cover. When he does leave a rebound, and I didn't see many tonight, we know guys are gonna clear it.
"When you have a goaltender playing well, it really, really settles your team down. He was a leader for us tonight."
Holtby made 18 saves in the second period, when the Capitals took a 2-1 lead, and then 13 more in the third period — snagging screened shots without rebounds and making key saves to squash any offensive momentum the Bruins could generate. After leaving him out to dry for most of the game, his defense stepped up late, keeping the Bruins without a shot for the last 7:13 of the game.
"He's playing well but it's about us finding ways to find the back of the net. It's really not about them right now, it's about us," said Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins.
Here's Holtby on his win:
Said Holtby: "There's still improvement. [Milan] Lucic, when he came in across the middle in the second period, that could have easily been a goal. I felt good, but far from perfect."
The Capitals' game-winning goal came on the power play.
After a Bruins scramble in front of Holtby, Bergeron was given a hooking penalty as Brooks Laich's stick went flying to the corner. That removed the Bruins' best defensive forward from the ensuing penalty kill; at 18:43, Alex Semin unleashed his trademark laser blast to the far top corner, beating Tim Thomas for the 2-1 lead.
The Caps took a 1-0 lead 1:22 into the game on an odd-man rush goal by Marcus Johansson. As Andrew Ference chased a bouncing puck to center ice, Alex Ovechkin landed on his back and the two tumbled to the ice. Zdeno Chara lost the puck to Brooks Laich, who broke in 2-on-1 with Johansson against forward Brian Rolston, with the 21-year-old Swede potting the goal.
(It was arguably the most positive thing Ovechkin did in the game, although he picked up a helper on the Semin goal. Coach Dale Hunter benched Ovechkin in the third period in favor of defensive lines, limiting him to four shifts and 1:58 time on ice. Bruce Boudreau must be wondering where that leeway was back in November.)
The Bruins struck back at 13:12 of the first on a play that started with Ovechkin wiping out trying to avoid a Chara hit along the boards. The Bruins quickly transitioned to offense, broke in on a 3-on-1 and Rich Peverley scored the equalizer.
But that was all the Bruins would get thanks to Holtby, who had exemplary rebound control in the third period.
"That was one of their goals today. They threw a lot off the wing to my far pad and my far blocker, some creative ones — one guy floated one to my far blocker and I had nowhere to put it except into his body. It's an NHL play. My job is to deal with those rebounds. I thought I did a good job," said Holtby.
Experiencing "NHL plays" in the postseason has been part of Holtby's learning curve.
"The skill level. The game doesn't change that much. It's not that much faster. The guys shoot a little harder. But it's those creative plays you have to be aware of," he said.
Holtby wasn't perfect — several Bruins chances were of the "how did that not go in?!" variety. But he was better than Tim Thomas (19 saves), who appeared to be fighting the puck for the second straight game.
"I thought things were turning our way, even though they were getting chances. I thought we got through the storm kind of deal, but obviously they were able to get one on the power play at the end of the second and we were never able to answer," said Thomas.
The Capitals and Bruins play Game 5 on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET; Game 6 will be Sunday.