The puck was there. Braden Holtby was not. He was helpless on both knees instead, left skate sealed against the far post, shoulders and chest squared toward the visiting bench, where captain Alex Ovechkin would soon perform one damn accurate Kevin McCallister impression upon witnessing what miracles the Washington Capitals goalie somehow conjured next.
Slow the footage down, frame by frame. Watch it again, over and over. See the lateral pass move from Golden Knights center Cody Eakin to linemate Alex Tuch, his right-handed blade flexed and firing at an empty net. Marvel over Holtby twisting, lunging, reaching, anything to have a chance. Gasp as the puck strikes the shaft of his outstretched stick, smack on the M in CCM, before it is safely corralled like chips at a craps table. Quick question: Does the Smithsonian accept GIFs as gifts?
“Let’s talk about the save,” Holtby was asked later by NBCSN commentator Pierre McGuire, stalactitic sweat dripping from his beard, a nonchalant gaze on his face. “Something that will go down in Washington Capitals lore.”
How the next two weeks break will ultimately determine to what extent ol’ Pierre is correct, but make no mistake that the baseline levels are already set somewhere between mind-boggling and legendary. Almost three minutes remained when Holtby stymied Tuch, preserving a 3-2 lead that lasted until the final horn and secured the first Stanley Cup Final victory in the Capitals' 43-year history.
“That’s hockey sometimes,” Holtby told McGuire.
Actually, that’s Holtby sometimes. Benched when the playoffs began, the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy winner had allowed an uncharacteristically high five goals during a Game 1 loss, including four at even strength. But no one was better Wednesday night. His 37 saves marked a regulation-high this postseason, including six straight stops across an extended Golden Knights power play that began with 68 seconds of 5-on-3 in the third period. His puck-moving skills helped stymie Vegas’s feared forecheck, like the head fake and backhanded pass that he threw with 40 seconds remaining and opposing goalie Marc-Andre Fleury pulled.
Holtby’s performance guaranteed that this whiplash series is now tied heading back to Washington.
Elsewhere, the supporting cast showed up. With center Evgeny Kuznetsov shelved by a hard hit that left him hunched over and wincing in pain—and Nicklas Backstrom basically stickhandling with nine adult fingers and one baby eggplant—Lars Eller delivered a goal and two assists. It had been 824 days since defenseman Brooks Orpik last scored, but his short-hopper caromed off Tuch’s elbow and past Fleury for the eventual game-winner.
There was the critical puck support of Andre Burakovsky on Eller’s opening salvo in the first period. And a stingy defensive stretch that held Vegas without a shot for more than 10 straight minutes in the third. And Jay Beagle, hobbling to the bench after blocking a shot that formally ended the Golden Knights’ aforementioned man advantage, their last true gasp.
“Five-on-three, you’ve got to count on a goal there,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant told reporters postgame.
“I was praying like crazy,” Capitals counterpart Barry Trotz said moments later.
A verbose talker of clergyman quality, Trotz bows not to conventional deities but higher hockey powers. In his mind these sorts of gods did not answer Monday, perhaps too preoccupied watching that breathless track meet like everyone else (including the referees who missed Ryan Reaves’s obvious cross-check on the game-winning goal).
But starting when Kuznetsov exited down the tunnel—taking with him an 11-game point streak, longest in the playoffs league-wide since 2010, and the breath of every Washington fan back home—the Capitals were able to access something deeper. It was the same resiliency that helped them past a 2-0 series deficit against Columbus in the first round, let them banish their black-and-yellow demons over Pittsburgh, and carried them to Games 6 and 7 shutouts of Tampa Bay for their first Eastern Conference title in two decades.
The same fire that lifted the Capitals until it was time to form a celebration line in front of Holtby, pull his mask close, and whisper thanks for what their goalie had done.