In the midst of the second of what would be his and his Washington Capitals' three penalty kills of the first period against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1, Braden Holtby flashes quick glances all around the ice. Sweaters of red, white and orange are scattered in front of him, each one shifting ever so slightly as the puck whizzes around the ice. He hears a constant hum from from the crowd as they wait in anticipation for the next big move.
Holtby shifts to face the puck carrier, Claude Giroux, who is holding the puck along the half board. Holtby keeps a side eye on Brayden Schenn, positioned in the slot, anticipating the Flyers' next move.
Giroux fires the puck to Schenn, who winds up heavily for a one-timer. Holtby has a fraction of a second to react.
Physically, he's attuned. Cerebrally, he's focused. Emotionally, there's desire and passion.
The puck jumps off of Schenn's stick, ripping along the ice in an instant. Holtby flashes his left pad, rebounding the puck away from his crease, directly back into harm's way on the stick of the waiting Jakub Voracek. Instinctively, Holtby turns square to the puck and gobbles up the quick shot. A moment of calm breaks the hectic storm.
"In the playoffs, it's just a little easier to focus on the game," Holtby said following the 2-0 opening win. "There's less distractions, stats don't really matter, anything like that. You're not worried about giving up something, you're just focused on stopping that next puck. That's a mindset I've taken and maybe I can keep growing it."
Welcome to the life of Braden Holtby, playoff goaltender extraordinaire.
Holtby's 19-save effort in the 2-0 win earned him his third career playoff shutout. That's one more than the Capitals' former goaltenders Don Beaupre and Semyon Varlamov, and it places Holtby second on the franchise all-time list of the respective category.
It marks another pristine effort that Washington has grown accustomed to. Through his 35-career playoff games, Holtby has recorded an astounding .937 save percentage, the highest-such percentage in the history of the NHL among goaltenders with at least 25 playoff games. In his last 14 playoff games, that number has ballooned to an otherworldly .947.
But this one was a bit different. In the past, Holtby has seen an onslaught of shots. Last year, he faced 30.7 shots per playoff game. In the 2012-13 postseason, he faced 28.44. In his opening playoff campaign, he saw 29.88.
Last night, Holtby faced just 19 shots, 11 of which came in the first period alone, a period riddled with penalties. John Carlson took an early hooking call and Brooks Orpik took an illegal check to the head penalty and an interference infraction. Those early penalties were a bit anticipated by Holtby, and the quick flurry of shots helped him settle into the game.
"We gave up some penalty kills, which is where they got the majority of their chances from, and we held on" Holtby said. "Obviously, have a lot of emotion built up over the (last few) months, and we were just ready to go. Wasn't a surprise that we took a couple of penalties and we were ready to kill them off."
"You want to get into the game right at the start, but at the same time, you don't want to give up a goal right away," Holtby continued.
But after the Capitals got comfortable with that surge of adrenaline, they gave Holtby a solid effort. He said that his teammates didn't get too fancy on the blue line, and they instead made the smart play with the puck. The forecheck was strong, and the Capitals played the puck in the style they wanted, by placing the puck down in the corners below their opponents' cage.
"We played to our strength," Holtby said. "We got the puck deep, we got it below their goal line. That's our strength. That's where teams have a tough time playing with us because of our chemistry, our speed, our skill, our combination down there."
The Capitals' style is pretty tough to beat. Washington finished with the Presidents' Trophy, beating out the second-place Dallas Stars by 11 points. Their 252 goals were the second-most in the NHL, and their 193 goals against was the second-least in the NHL.
And while Holtby's past playoff performances are an indication of a tenacious rareness among goaltenders, it's important for the Capitals to not settle on their recent laurels. The opening win was a big one, but in the grand scheme of things, there is still more work to be done. Holtby knows that.
"(There's) a big goal in mind, and you can't get it wrapped up in one game," Holtby said. "Win or lose, you erase it right away."
Fifteen more to go.