Philadelphia, PA – New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is regarded as one of the game's best between the pipes. No further evidence is needed outside of his dual Vezina and Hart Trophy nominations for his play this season.
Yet, there stands a decent chance he could be watching the Eastern Conference finals at home next week. That's because Washington Capitals rookie goaltender Braden Holtby has surprisingly managed to go toe-to-toe with the one they call "King Henrik."
Few might have foreseen the seventh-seeded Capitals even advancing to the second round of the postseason, let alone taking the top-seeded Rangers to a crucial Game 7, scheduled for Saturday. For most of the season, Washington looked like a club without an identity, a former offensive firepower struggling in its attempt to morph into a solid defensive club.
But things eventually clicked under head coach Dale Hunter, who took over during the season from the fired Bruce Boudreau, and the club appears to be fully committed to his style at just the right time.
Washington's solid defensive play has kept a chunk of pressure off Holtby, who himself appears up to the task of knocking off the East's top team when the puck finds its way toward the net.
The Capitals began their playoff run with a surprising elimination of the defending Cup champion Bruins, outscoring Boston by a slim 16-15 margin in the seven-game series. Holtby opened the series as the starter thanks to injuries to both Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. Neither has been heard from since.
It was an up-and-down series for the youngster, who appeared in just seven regular-season games in 2011-12. He gave up four goals in two of the first- round losses and was touched for three goals in a Game 5 win. However, he stopped 31-of-32 shots faced in a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 7, the fourth game to go past regulation in the series.
The situation has been just as tight through six games with the Rangers, with each of the past five contests decided by just one goal. In fact, the two clubs have been tied or separated by just one goal for 90 percent of the series.
That would seem like a lot for a player like Holtby, who had never appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs prior to this season, but the 22-year-old has not only kept himself from making a series-changing mistake, but at times he has been the Caps' best player on the ice.
Take Wednesday's 2-1 victory in Game 6. Holtby not only outdueled his Rangers counterpart - turning aside 30 shots to Lundqvist's 21 and not allowing a goal until the game's final minute - but he helped Washington keep New York off the scoreboard during five power-play chances. That included a big four-minute kill in the second period following a high-stick call to Jeff Halpern with the Capitals up 2-0.
"It's one of those accidental things again. It starts with your goalie - (Braden Holtby) was sound and penalty killers sacrificed, blocked shots, worked their tails off and got the job done," Hunter said.
The kill not only impacted the game, but it could have given the Capitals the confidence they need to go into Madison Square Garden on Saturday and secure a win. After all, many wondered about the psyche of Washington after the way it lost Game 5: two power-play goals allowed on a four-minute high-stick call to Joel Ward, the first with only 6.6 seconds left in regulation and the winner 1:35 into overtime.
Washington could have easily folded following that 3-2 loss. Instead, the Capitals improved to 4-0 in Game 6's when facing elimination since 2007-08.
"It's a big (victory)," Holtby said after Game 6. "I think we earned it in a way that is going to benefit us in the long run. We played a very solid team game. Very gutsy effort and we got rewarded tonight."
Enough can't be said about how Holtby has performed under the pressure of tight hockey games. He halted 10-of-11 shots in the third period on Wednesday and now has gone 29 straight NHL starts, including all 13 playoff games, without suffering back-to-back losses. He is 6-0 with a 1.24 goals against average and .960 save percentage following a loss this postseason.
"Just staying focused, staying in the moment," said forward Jason Chimera of avoiding a losing streak in the postseason. "We know we've been in every game. Every game, we've had a chance to win. That's a big thing. It's hard to be upset about a game when we've been in every game. We haven't put ourselves out of it. And Holtby came back and played a good game for us."
Chimera scored the game-winner in the second period on Wednesday, giving the Capitals a rare two-goal lead. That was enough for Holtby, who came within 50.5 seconds of the shutout.
"It's obviously nice, but you still have to play (the game) the same," Holtby said of having a two-goal lead. "You can't get comfortable at all with guys playing in the playoffs for everything."
No player has faced more shots in the NHL playoffs than Holtby, who has stopped 400-of-428 pucks fired his way. Not only that, but his numbers in this season's playoffs are very similar to Lundqvist; both have a 7-6 record, while the Rangers' netminder has a 1.73 GAA and a save percentage of .936. Holtby has been just as good, posting a 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage.
Both netminders have seen plenty of teammates block shots in front of them, a gritty part of the game that really shines through in the postseason. But when pucks are getting through, Holtby and Lundqvist have stood tall.
That isn't surprising for the latter. For Holtby, it's been the reason the Capitals are making a run at the conference finals.