Thursday, July 07, 2011

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Flyers at Capitals, November 7th

Next up on our tour of games that mattered in the 2010-2011 season is another goaltending tale, but not one we might have expected…

November 7, 2010: Philadelphia (9-4-1) at Washington (9-4-0)

Result: Capitals 3 – Flyers 2 (OT)

The Background: There was a lot going on here for a game in early November. First, the Flyers were coming into Washington on a six-game winning streak behind the white hot goaltending of their latest contestant between the pipes, Sergei Bobrovsky. The rookie goaltender earned the decision in all six wins on the streak, posting a GAA of 1.67 and a save percentage of .943. His efforts helped propel the Flyers to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, one point ahead of Washington.

Meanwhile, the Caps were on a streak of their own, having won three in a row, mainly by pummeling their opponents with goals – 17 in the three wins. It shaped up as a contest of the irresistible force of the Caps offense against the immovable object represented by Sergei Bobrovsky in goal.

Why it mattered: The trouble with easy narratives like the one described above is that something often comes in to intrude on the story. This game would be one of those instances, and it had its roots in the Caps' previous game, a 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins. In that game, the Caps carried what looked like a comfortable 3-0 lead into the third period, but three goals on five shots in the first 10 minutes of the third period put an end to the Caps’ feeling of comfort. Those goals also chased Caps goaltender Michal Neuvirth in favor of rookie Braden Holtby making his NHL debut. Holtby faced only four shots in the last ten minutes, stopping them all. Meanwhile, John Carlson scored with 6:35 left, and Alex Ovechkin added an empty net goal to give the Caps a 5-3 win and Holtby the decision in his first NHL appearance.

Holtby was named the starter for this game against the Flyers, hardly the easiest opponent to face in one’s first NHL start. The Caps, though, did a fine job of preventing Flyer shots on goal. In the first nine minutes the Flyers managed only eight shot attempts, four of which were credited as shots on goal, none of them from inside of 30 feet. Nevertheless, the Flyers opened the scoring at the 9:51 mark on a goal by Nikolai Zherdev, leading a 2-on-1 break. The Caps went back to work, though, holding the Flyers to only one shot on goal over the rest of the period and getting the game-tying goal from Eric Fehr late in the frame.

It was more of the same in the second – the Flyers finding it difficult to get shots off, let alone on net. In the first four minutes of the period the Flyers attempted two shots, one of which was on goal, but did have to kill off a penalty as well. Shortly after killing a high-sticking call on Jeff Carter, Ville Leino put the Flyers back on top at 4:04 with a tip-in of an Andrej Meszaros shot.

Allowing two goals on eight shots might not have been a case of Holtby having jitters as much as having so little work to keep him focused. Whatever the reason for the early goals, Holtby slammed the door after that. He stopped each of the remaining 17 shots he would face in the second and third periods, while Alexander Semin tied the game in the second period, the last goal either team would score in regulation.

In the latter stages of regulation time, the Caps caught a break. Two, in fact. Chris Pronger was sent off at the 16:05 mark on a double-minor penalty for high-sticking David Steckel. Then, with 19 seconds left in regulation, Sean O’Donnell was sent off for boarding Tomas Fleischmann (have you noticed we mentioned so many names no longer with the respective clubs?). The Caps could not capitalize in the final seconds of the third period, but their 5-on-3 would carry over into the extra session. Pronger came out of the box five seconds into overtime, creating a rare 5-on-4 in overtime. The Flyers would not get to reset the matchup back to 4-on-3, though. Shortly after Pronger returned, Nicklas Backstrom found Mike Green at the right point, and after stepping up into a void left by the Flyer defenders, Green rifled a slap shot over Boborovsky’s left shoulder to end it 29 seconds into overtime. In doing so, the Caps jumped over the Flyers to lead the Eastern Conference standings for the first time in 2010-2011.

The takeaway: Holtby could have wilted. Little work early in the game, allowing the Flyers to get leads twice in the first 24 minutes, a nail-biter of a game throughout where neither team had more than a one goal lead (and the Caps never led until the game-winner). But after allowing two goals on the first eight shots he faced Holtby stopped the last 17 (he did not face a shot in overtime).

Credit could be given to the skaters in front of him, as the Caps allowed the Flyers only 49 shot attempts (25 on goal). But Holtby was solid in goal, too, matching Sergei Bobrovsky save for save. As Mike Green put it after the game, “…as a defenseman I said this about [Michal] Neuvirth – I was so confident playing in front of him. All his rebounds – he was scooping them up. He wasn't staying in the net. He was diving out and covering them up. Maybe as a young goaltender you wouldn't put yourself out there like that, but these guys are confident and that's what we need to win.”

With his debut against the Bruins and his first start against the Flyers, Braden Holtby threw his hat into the ring in the competition to see who would emerge as the Caps number one goaltender. If not the favorite, at least Holtby pronounced himself ready and capable of competing at the NHL level. And that is why this game in early November against a long-time rival mattered.

(photo: Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)

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