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Braden Holtby Can Lead the Washington Capitals to Their First Stanley Cup

With Evgeny Kuznetsov injured, Holtby matters more to Washington than ever before. He will be the key to a series victory over Vegas if he plays like he did in Game 2.

by Dave Lozo
May 31 2018, 4:04pm

Photo by Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

An Alex Ovechkin power-play goal. A Braden Holtby save worthy of a commemorative stamp. Three points from Lars Eller. It was everything the Washington Capitals could have ever wanted or needed in the franchise's first Stanley Cup Final victory, a dramatic 3-2 win that evened the best-of-seven series at 1-1 with the Vegas Golden Knights.

So with the series shifting to Washington for Game 3 on Saturday night after an uplifting, historic victory, there's one obvious question Capitals fans are asking themselves right now: "How fucked are we?"

These are the Capitals; nothing can be easy.

There's a strong possibility the Capitals will be without leading scorer Evgeny Kuznetsov, who left Game 2 late in the first period with an apparent hand injury and did not return, for Game 3 and perhaps longer. Kuznetsov's absence did not matter Wednesday, as the Golden Knights signed their own death warrant by allowing Imagine Dragons to perform inside their building for several minutes before puck drop.

There was no coming back from that.

The Capitals can't count on the Golden Knights to make that same mistake again, so how do they win what is now a best-of-five series without this postseason's leading scorer with 25 points in 21 games?

When the Capitals were flopping during the past two postseasons, something always went wrong. Maybe it was a hot goaltender getting in the way, or Holtby seemingly forgetting how to remain upright, or Ovechkin being unable to finish, or nobody besides Ovechkin being able to finish, or Brooks Orpik getting burnt by any breathing forward on the other team. No matter the situation, the Capitals would find a way to reach deep down inside themselves when it mattered most and pull out a steaming turd.

Perhaps because they've resisted the urge to host a live Imagine Dragons show before a playoff game this year, the Capitals have become synonymous with resiliency. What a weird sentence to type; if there was one team you could bank on to choke and let Imagine Dragons perform on their ice before a big playoff game, you'd scream THE CAPITALS before the question were finished and no one could blame you. Now they're the team most associated with intestinal fortitude and it's still a little jarring to see it.

That's why Game 2, even without Kuznetsov, can serve as a blueprint for winning three of the next five games and inspiration for Capitals fans ready to puke if and when the bad Kuznetsov news becomes official.

We've got two days until Game 3 so let's get this out of the way now—Brayden McNabb's hit that left Kuznetsov crumpled and holding his arm should have been penalized, but the illegal nature of the hit isn't what caused the injury. McNabb followed through with a shot to Kuznetsov's head but it was the initial body contact that did the damage to Kuznetsov's arm, so let's not spend the next 48 hours comparing McNabb to Tom Wilson, the NHL's foremost hockey sociopath.

But the loss of Kuznetsov did nothing to deflate the Capitals, who were down 1-0 at the time and scored less than three minutes later to even the game at 1. Vegas was ahead 9-5 in shots at the time of Kuznetsov's injury and outshot the Caps 30-21 over the rest of the game, but when you consider score effects and the Knights outshooting the Capitals 15-6 in third period, that's an impressive performance for a team that played with 11 forwards for the final 45 minutes.

Mental toughness and tenacity are great but the biggest reason for the victory was the man between the pipes, and he needs to have three more games like this for the Capitals to win the Cup.

Ovechkin put the Capitals ahead for good with a power-play goal 5:38 into the second period. Orpik scored a goal. Burakovsky had two assists. If the Capitals get a goal from their superstar sniper and something from their secondary players—nobody is asking Orpik to score again—then they have a chance against the Golden Knights if Kuznetsov is done for the series or severely diminished if he returns.

And despite the understandable pessimism from Caps fans, the team already showed it could flourish without Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals going 3-0 in their first three games without their best two-way forward should go a long way toward calming the nerves of fans and players going into Game 3 against Vegas.

Holtby, however, matters more than anyone now, even Ovechkin. Holtby stopped 37 shots and made a miracle stop on Alex Tuch in the final seconds to prevent all the contributions from Ovechkin, Orpik and everyone else from becoming footnotes in another sad Capitals postseason moment.

Vegas outshot Washington 73-54 over the first two games and while score effects in the third period led to Holtby being peppered over the final 20 minutes, that may not change if the Capitals have to replace Kuznetsov with that Australian guy whose name I refuse to look up. But the Capitals found a recipe for success in closing out the Penguins in the second round and jumping to a 2-0 lead in the third round against the Lightning without Backstrom, and Kuznetsov's absence could be what forces the Capitals to rediscover the safe, low-event style that may be their best bet to beat Vegas.

Holtby allowed five goals in the three victories without Backstrom while stopping an average of 24 shots in those games. The Capitals counterpunched efficiently against teams that boasted deep lineups led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, so there's no reason to think it can't work against Vegas if Holtby continues to play like the 2016 Vezina winner.

And if that doesn't work in Game 3, pay Imagine Dragons to perform outside of the Golden Knights' team hotel before Game 4. This is the playoffs and you do whatever it takes to win.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports CA.