While Braden Holtby and Henrik Lundqvist were terrific in the second-round playoff meeting between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals last season, they both have put on an impressive encore in this year's first-round rematch.
The two goaltenders' strong play is even more evident this May, as both have improved their performance in a series that is more wide-open. Both have faced better scoring chances than the shot-blocking fiesta that New York won in seven games last season.
Sunday afternoon in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, Lundqvist was impressive with the Rangers' season at stake, making 27 saves for his first shutout of the postseason and seventh playoff of his career. While the Capitals made a strong push for the equalizer late in the contest to force overtime, he was able to frustrate the Caps with some nifty saves and give the Rangers a one-game shot to advance to the second round for the second-straight year.
Lundqvist is definitely making an impact on Washington's attack, as the Capitals right now are more likely to make the extra pass to create a nice setup. This tends to be a hallmark of a team that has the opposing goaltender is in their heads a bit.
Instead of putting the pucks on net, the Capitals are looking for that open side and extra room, which isn't usually a successful strategy against a team that blocks shots and clogs the lanes. After Washington was more straightforward in its attack early in the series with shots from the point, the Caps now tend to overpass with the scoring chances they get.
At the other end of the ice, Braden Holtby was impressive in Game 6 as well, making 28 stops. The only shot to dent the twine was a shot that deflected off his own defenseman Steven Olesky nearly halfway through the contest. It was the second game of the series in which the only goal allowed by the 23-year-old Saskatchewan native was one that deflected off of his own blueliners -- the Rangers' lone tally came off of John Erskine's skate in Game 1 -- and Holtby also has one shutout to his credit this series, the overtime win in Game 2.
Holtby kept Washington in the last two games, allowing just a pair of goals. The Rangers pressed for more when staked to a one-goal lead in both games, and the Caps were able to pull out a win in one of the contests in overtime in large part due to their goaltender's strong play when trailing.
Between the two netminders, they have allowed just 23 goals total, the lowest combined output in the Eastern Conference and just one fewer than the St. Louis vs. Los Angeles series out in the West. It's also fewer than last year's series by two goals, when neither goaltender had a shutout to their credit.
This year's series has seen more open ice than last year's edition and better chances. The big difference is that both goaltenders have been at the top of their games and given their team an opportunity to move on.
Struggling stars Alex Ovechkin and Rick Nash both played perhaps their best games of the series Sunday, but it didn't matter much as the netminders mostly took care of anything thrown at them.
Holtby has had the edge in Washington, allowing just two goals in three games for a sparkling 0.61 goals-against average and a .976 save percentage. Lundqvist has stopped 97 of 102 shots and pushed two games the Rangers likely had little chance of winning into overtime with some impressive stops.
Holtby was 1-1 in Game 7s last spring, beating the Bruins but falling to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Lundqvist is 2-1 in Game 7s for his career, winning both over Ottawa and Washington last spring. His lone blemish came at Verizon Center in 2009 where Sergei Fedorov scored late in regulation in a 2-1 Capitals win.
Overall, neither team has been very successful in winner-take-all Game 7s. The Capitals are just 2-6 at home while the Rangers are still looking for their first win on the road in six tries.
It seems appropriate that the two goalies get one more chance for the right to play on, as they both are big reasons why their teams are still playing at the moment. Both have played well enough to get their teams into the second round, but only one of them will get a chance to play there.