BOSTON, MA - APRIL 25: Jay Beagle #83 of the Washington Capitals celebrates the win with teammate Braden Holtby #70 after Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden on April 25, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Washington Capitals defeated the Boston Bruins 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Capitals rookie goalie Braden Holtby was the difference between a first-round exit and a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals for his club.
The Washington Capitals completed the upset on Wednesday night, defeating the defending champion Boston Bruins with an overtime Game 7 victory, and it was pretty darn fitting when the fourth-line duo of Joel Ward and Mike Knuble broke up the ice just minutes into the extra frame en route to the game-winning goal.
The key for the Caps in this series against the Bruins was simple: They needed to hold them off defensively while winning the matchup battle and taking advantage of their offensive opportunities. Guys like Knuble and Ward were a major part of that on Wednesday night, of course, but it's obvious that most of the credit for this series win goes to the rookie in the Washington crease.
This series was Braden Holtby's coming-out party. The 22-year-old Saskatchewan native went from third-string question mark, stuck behind both Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, to possible franchise goalie status after the seven-game tilt with the Bruins. Not only did he basically come out of nowhere against all odds, he also turned recent Caps' playoff history on its head.
Throughout their many playoff failures (and even minor playoff successes) in the Rock The Red era, the Caps fell victim to the "hot goalie." In 2009, it was the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist who almost put a scare into Washington, forcing the series all the way to a Game 7. In 2010, it was Jaroslav Halak and the Canadiens that topped them in another Game 7. In 2011, Dwayne Roloson of the Tampa Bay Lightning discovered the fountain of youth in Round 2 against Washington and sent the division champions home early.
In 2012, the hunted became the hunters. Washington did not fall victim to the hot goalie, and in turn used its own prolific puck-stopper to defeat the defending champs and their reigning Vezina Trophy winner, Tim Thomas. While Thomas was far from bad in this series, he wasn't up to the same Conn Smythe level as last season, and Holtby outplayed him.
A lot of the credit has to go to head coach Dale Hunter and his demand for better team defense, which was evident throughout the series. However, that defense wasn't perfect through the seven games, and the Capitals couldn't have won without strong goaltending behind the defensive system. In Holtby, the Caps now seem to have a reliable young netminder who inspires the rest of the squad to play within the system. He'll take care of the rest.
So as they embark on an improbable journey into the conference semifinals, the Caps now have a goaltender who has become the story. Holtby has drawn comparisons to the likes of Halak, who improbably led the Habs to the conference finals in 2010, and he's even drawn comparisons to legendary Montreal netminders Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden, who led their teams to Cups as rookies in 1986 and 1971, respectively.
Can he keep it going? That'll ultimately be what decides the Caps' playoff fate.