In 2018, the Capitals had a choice to make in net. The team's No. 1 netminder, Braden Holtby, struggled immensely in the season forcing backup Philipp Grubauer to pick up the slack. As the postseason approached, head coach Barry Trotz named Grubauer the starter. Down 2-0 in the first round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team turned to Holtby to save the season and he did, helping lead the team to its first Stanley Cup.
Now in what will most likely be his final season in Washington, the Caps will rest their playoff hopes again on Holtby's shoulders.
"We're gonna need him to be one of our best players as he was in '18 when we went on that run," Lars Eller said.
Todd Reirden declared that the No. 1 job was Holtby's to lose heading into training camp, but even if that was the case, the leash was going to be short.
For much of the season, Holtby was outplayed by the player seen as his soon-to-be replacement, Ilya Samsonov. Samsonov put together a strong rookie campaign with a 16-6-2 record, .913 save percentage and 2.55 GAA. Those numbers are stronger than Holtby's .897 save percentage and 3.11 GAA. Samsonov, however, struggled down the stretch of the season as the defensive play in front of him deteriorated, allowing Holtby to reassert himself as the No. 1.
But even if you believe Samsonov would still be the better option heading into the playoffs, that discussion is now moot with Saturday's news that Samsonov suffered an injury prior to camp and will not travel with the team to the hub city of Toronto.
"At the time when I made the statement about Braden Holtby, it was still a conversation between him and Samsonov," Reirden said. "It wasn't that I knew something that I wasn't telling you guys. That was a situation where I believe in Braden Holtby starting this playoff series and run for us. I thought he was going to get the first chance, now it's where he goes with it. That hasn't changed."
Holtby is in the last year of his contract. Why this could be the final season for Holtby in Washington is something that has been discussed and written about ad nauseam all season, but to put it bluntly, I do not believe it makes sense for either the team or Holtby to return. The future belongs to Samsonov, the team needs the cap space and if Holtby still sees himself as a No. 1, it is not going to be in Washington.
But in his final sendoff, there will be no dispute as to who is the No. 1. The future may belong to Samsonov, but the present belongs to Holtby. There is no goalie controversy, there is no debate. The crease is Holtby's and the team's hopes for a second Stanley Cup now rest on his shoulders.
Holtby's numbers for the 2019-20 season do not instill much confidence, but his penchant for strong play in the postseason certainly does.
"Holtby's been one of our leaders for many years," Nicklas Backstrom said. "He always shows up at the big moments, too. He's going to shine this playoffs."
Holtby has the fifth-best playoff save percentage of all-time with a .928. In 2018, Holtby responded to his rough regular season with a brilliant postseason, posting a .922 save percentage and 2.16 GAA as the team marched all the way to the Cup.
The Caps will need a similar performance from Holtby if they hope for success in 2020.
Holtby forever cemented himself into the history of the franchise with his performance in 2018. Now he has one final opportunity to add to that legacy as he takes the crease for Washington in the playoffs.
"He's got it in him," Eller said. "We have all the confidence in the world that Holts can carry us far."
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