Washington Capitals will sink or swim on Braden Holtby's play

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

Most would agree that Alex Ovechkin is the most important player on the Capitals, but could Braden Holtby's play be a bigger key to success for Washington?

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- When one thinks of the modern Washington Capitals franchise, the image that instantly comes to mind is Alexander Ovechkin.

But while Washington's captain has delivered a league-leading 21 goals this season, the player for the Capitals who may determine the team's success this season is 24-year-old netminder Braden Holtby.

Holtby capped a strong month in Washington's net Saturday night by stopping 37 of 39 Islanders shots in a 3-2 overtime win at Nassau Coliseum, finishing November with a .933 save percentage and a 2.35 goals-against average.

That stretch is impressive considering he's shouldered the bulk of the workload for the Capitals, starting 22 of 27 games so far behind a team that has allowed the second-most shots in the league -- 35.1 per game, tied with Toronto and just behind Buffalo. In his minutes so far, Holtby has seen more shots than six entire NHL teams have allowed all season, an average of better than 35 shots per every 60 minutes he's played this campaign.

After a slow start in October for both Holtby and the Caps, November started off in very strange fashion for the netminder. He crafted his lone shutout so far this year at Philadelphia on Nov. 1, shutting the door on an early Flyers push to keep the Caps in the game before Washington took control, but the game became more notable for his encounter with Ray Emery in a melee. Despite the strong start to the month, Holtby was good behind a team that's thin on defense, making saves for the most part when his team needed them to keep the Caps in the Metropolitan Division race. They're now on a 13-7-2 stretch since their 1-4 start to the year.

Of his 12 starts in November, Holtby was busy, seeing at least 30 shots in 10 of those games, but he still posted a 8-3-1 mark and started to get his name back in the discussion for one of the three goaltenders that Team Canada's will bring to Sochi.

Despite being pressed into action in playing his third game in four nights -- thanks to Michal Neuvirth's pregame injury Friday that required Holtby work a planned night off -- the Saskatchewan native was solid in facing a New York team desperate to snap a losing skid. Holtby was put to the test with New York getting some good looks in tight.

"We see a lot of shots, our team. I like that," Holtby said afterwards. "As long as we're in a game like we were in tonight where we're matching it, it's an even pace game, it's in our favor. Shots doesn't matter as long as the play doesn't indicate the shot total."

Despite some Islanders chances, Holtby allowed only a short-handed breakaway goal by Cal Clutterbuck that was a result of a defensive breakdown on a power play, and a puck that was popped loose late by Thomas Vanek in a play the Holtby thought should have been blown dead.

"I just covered the puck," he explained of the late Islanders tally. "The rule is, when you lose sight of the puck, you blow the whistle. You can't see the puck when it's under my glove, and he pitchforks it off of me. It's tough because at that point of the game, it could have been a loss for us in a game that we played very well because of one call, but luckily it didn't cost us."

When Holtby plays well, it allows the Capitals to press more offensively by pushing the pace, and Holtby said he enjoys playing in an up-tempo contest like Saturday night's.

"Any game you play against the Islanders is a high-tempo game," he said. "The team can skate as well as they do, you know what you're in for. They did a great job matching it, especially in back-to-back games, and as I said, it was a great hockey game."

Holtby even showed some flash late in the contest after the Capitals had put up the equalizer short-handed, although the netminder shrugged off his late heroics.

"I didn't feel as sharp that way, as it kind it shows," he said. "I think anytime you have to make an acrobatic save, you did something wrong to get there. I was a little out of control, that power play, and thankfully it didn't go in the net."

Holtby is on pace to play 77 games this year, which would exceed the 68 total games he played with Washington and Hershey last season, the most he's played in one professional season. With Neuvirth put on injured reserve Monday until at least the weekend, Holtby seemingly will be getting even more of the workload in the near future.

And, seemingly, Holtby is a guy who will shape how this year's edition of the Capitals fare in the face of a barrage of shots.

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