Friday December 4th, 2015

There are some NHL arenas that are easier to win in than others for visiting teams. Montreal’s Bell Centre is not one of them.

But on Thursday night Braden Holtby and the Washington Capitals went in and leapfrogged the Eastern Conference-leading Canadiens, who have the highest home winning percentage in the league, in a 3–2 victory. The Caps didn’t exactly look tremendous throughout, but it was Holtby who made the difference, stopping 33 of 35 shots for his 16th win of the season and sixth straight for Washington.

The Caps and Habs now sit 1-2 in the East with the New York Rangers rounding out the top three. These teams can count themselves as the true elite of the conference (for now, at least) and all three sport goalkeepers who are the backbone of their respective rosters. When healthy, Holtby, Montreal’s Carey Price and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist are safe bets for Vezina Trophy nominations as the NHL’s best man between the pipes.

But given Price’s lower-body injury that will keep him out of action for six weeks, Lundqvist and Holtby have emerged as the frontrunners. Thursday night’s win, combined with the recent defensive follies of the Rangers, should change the conversation yet again: In the early going, the Vezina is now Holtby’s to lose.

This isn’t to say that Lundqvist has played himself out of consideration: the opposite, in fact, is true. The Rangers struggled throughout November to prevent high-danger scoring chances and as a result, the demands on Lundqvist, both physically and mentally, increased wildly. Goalies generally peak later than scorers, sure. But at age 33, it’s worth wondering how long Lundqvist will be able to keep his team in games if it continues to allow the amount of scoring chances it has so far this season.

As of this writing, Lundqvist has played 21 games to Holtby’s 20. Yet the Rangers rank first in the NHL in total shots allowed. Breaking things down per game, Lundqvist has had 32.6 shots thrown at him while Holtby has seen only 26.8. And by standing on his head and providing the Rangers with a chance to win every night, King Henrik is certainly having a career year. But given the pressure he’ll face every night, how long can his stats be sustained?

Things look even more promising for Holtby when you consider just what type of chances opposing teams are getting against him.

How an NHL team’s system affects a player’s performance

​​According to, in October the Capitals had a respectable On-Ice High-Danger Scoring Differential of +13 and the Rangers +7. (All stats are five-on-five play.) In November, however, things really fell apart for the Rangers while the Caps got that much better. Washington posted an On-Ice High-Danger Scoring Differential of +19 while the Rangers fell to last in the league at –33. Unless New York can figure out a way to prevent opposing teams from getting the looks on net that they have, the demands on Lundqvist will only worsen.

I would be one of the first in line to bet on Lundqvist if I had to choose one goalie to win me a game, given his track record. But expecting him to carry the team during a full season, especially after deep playoff runs in three of the past four seasons? That’s a different story.

Again, Lundqvist was lights out in October, posting a High Danger Save Percentage of .909 to Holtby’s .783. The King couldn’t keep those numbers up through November as the defense in front of him opened their doors like old, welcoming relatives: His High Danger Save Percentage dropped to .868 while Holtby’s rose to .909, the number that Lundqvist posted when it seemed like he was a lock for the trophy in October.

It’s a long season and we’re still not even one-third of the way through the 82-game grind. Again, given each goalie’s pedigree, you’d be hard-pressed to find many who would bet against Lundqvist. An Olympic Gold Medal, a Hart Trophy, a Vezina Trophy (plus four other years when he was nominated) and an NHL First Team All-Star nod: These are all accomplishments Lundqvist has in his back pocket that the 26-year old Holtby does not.

Right now, though, Holtby looks much more likely to sustain his excellent play, given the defensive structure in front of him. The calm and cool demeanor with which he conducts himself speaks less to his lack of experience compared to Lundqvist and more to the confidence and composure he’s quickly attained in the league.

The Rangers have become an unpredictable lot, which is why Lundqvist will need to continue to be in top form for the Blueshirts to win and thus place him as a front-runner for the Vezina.

The last four seasons have seen the trophy awarded to a first-time winner. The way it stands now, we could see another newcomer take home the prize next June.

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