ARLINGTON, Va. — Sitting at the end of the bench, a baseball hat pulled down low over his eyes, Phillipp Grubauer did not exactly have the best view of what was proclaimed to be the “save of the year” in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final. But as a backup goalie who had begun the playoffs as Washington’s starter, he did have a unique vantage point of how Braden Holtby got in a position to do the impossible.
Part of it was luck. But mostly, it came down to trusting that he could stop the puck again.
“He just simplified his game,” Grubauer said of the diving stick save Holtby made on Vegas’ Alex Tuch in the final moments of a 4-2 win on Wednesday. “It’s about scramble mode. Don’t think, just stay with the basics.”
Grubauer was talking about the save, but really he was talking about how Holtby went from beginning the playoffs as the backup to having his name now mentioned in the Conn Smythe Trophy conversation.
There was no luck involved in Holtby’s return from the bench. But there was a lot of scrambling for answers. In the end, it came down to the self-realization that his once-stellar game needed fixing.
“He turned that break in his play into a positive,” said Jaci Stevenson, a cognitive and visual trainer with Zone Performance Psychology. Stevenson, along with her husband, John, a former goalie and sports psychologist, has been working with Holtby for more than a decade on how to use his eyes and mind to better track the puck.
“Some guys would have gone in the dumps with all the things the media was saying about being the backup and everything with that. But he did what he needed to do and tackled the challenges he was going through head-on. That’s absolutely huge.”
Looking back, it’s been a wild ride for everyone involved.
Today, Holtby is one of the main reasons why the Washington Capitals have not only reached the Stanley Cup for the first time in 20 years, but head into Game 3 with the series tied 1-1.
The benching for the first two games of the playoffs was a humbling turn of events for a $6-million goalie who won the Vezina Trophy in 2015-16 and was a finalist last year. But it was also a turning point in what might end up becoming the best season of his career.
Holtby was an All-Star Game representative in January but couldn’t stop a beach ball in February. By March, he had lost the starting job to Grubauer.
“It wasn’t a surprise thing,” Holtby said of the demotion. “I was just trying to play, trying to work hard in practice, just be a good teammate. I knew if I was needed, I’d be ready.”
Rather than pout or complain, Holtby used the additional practice time to work on things that he didn’t have time for when he was playing every other night during the season. He spent hours at the rink and on the phone with a sports psychologist. He looked at his game from all angles and turned what everyone was viewing as a negative into something positive.
When Grubauer lost Game 1 and was pulled in Game 2 after allowing four goals on 22 shots, Holtby was pressed into action. This time, he was more than ready for the challenge. Down 2-0 in the series after the Capitals had lost two games at home, Holtby won four straight and has not looked back since.
“Good for him to take a little reset there in March towards the end of the regular season,” Capitals defenceman Matt Niskanen said. “Since he came back in Game 3 of the first round, boy has he been good.”
Holtby had a 2.99 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage in the regular season. He’s improved both in the playoffs, posting a 2.19 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage.
“It was nice technically that we had some time in practice to really work on things,” Holtby said. “With the schedule when you’re playing every second day, you might have a few minutes here and there, but you don’t want to exhaust yourself, and that time you could go to the point of exhaustion trying to work on some things.
It was more a mental thing. Every year’s different, every situation and I was just getting to a point where I was seeing the play one step ahead of it instead of waiting for it to come and just being a little bit more patient and expecting the unexpected.”
That patience was on display in Game 2. With less than two minutes remaining in a one-goal game, a dumped-in puck took a wild hop off the end glass and ended up in front of Washington’s goal. Holtby followed it the entire way, from the glass to Cody Eakin to Tuch, who was staring at an empty net.
“Some people’s school of thought is that he was lucky,” Stevenson said of Holtby’s out-of-nowhere stick save on Tuch, “but I don’t think it’s luck when there’s that much tracking and recognition going on to get himself out of a situation like that.”
Did it take losing the net and having to re-evaluate his game for Holtby to make that save? It’s tough to say. But now that he’s got his net back, there’s no way he’s losing it again.
“It was definitely special. Great save and great timing,” Grubauer said. “But it’s not just the playoffs. He’s been amazing for us ever since I’ve been up here. He just needed a little bit of luck and then his hard work on the ice took over.”
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