With 1:59 remaining in the third period of Wednesday night's Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby made the save of the series and preserved a 3-2 win to even things up with the Vegas Golden Knights at a game apiece.
The save will be talked about and dissected for quite some time, as Holtby -- who began the playoffs riding the pine in favor of Philipp Grubauer -- seemed to defy logic in keeping an Alex Tuch one-timer from the slot out of the net. But the save was really a chain of reactions set in motion seconds before Tuch swatted at Cody Eakin's pass.
The play really began right around the 2:05 mark, when Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore gained the red line coming up the left side of the ice and dumped the puck deep to initiate the forecheck, as Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury ascended to the hashmarks in preparation of leaving the ice for an extra skater. Three Capitals skaters retreated backward, as Eakin slipped up the right side. As the puck wrung around the boards in the left corner, it careened awkwardly out in front of the net, rather than wrapping all the way around.
Holtby was set up about halfway deep in his crease with his right shoulder pointed at the corner that the puck was now shooting out from. Forced to react instantly to avoid letting the puck jettison in off his skate, he retreated swiftly to the goal line, feet first and arms high, leaving all of his weight forward on his toes.
The Caps had set up for the dump to wrap around, positioning for a normal breakout, allowing Eakin to scoot in between a pair of Washington skaters to get to the puck right around the faceoff dot to Holtby's left. This is where it got very interesting.
Holtby had essentially been on the goal line with all of his weight forward, and now he had to set up for the possibility of a quick Eakin shot on goal from about 15 feet. Without a ton of time to react, he settled and squared to the shooter but did not challenge. Perhaps Holtby saw Tuch dropping into the slot from the left side and purposely stayed deep in the net to cut time moving laterally. But more likely, he just didn't have the time to get out on Eakin.
As soon as Eakin touched the puck, Holtby committed to the shot, dropping to the butterfly, but Eakin had instead one-touched the puck across the slot in front of a backchecking John Carlson toward Tuch. At this point, Holtby was already down. Because he was forced deep into his net to avoid the bad bounce off the boards, he never had a chance to truly set up on Eakin, arriving to the shooter late and committing to the shot because he didn't have time to read the play and react. By dropping into the butterfly so quickly, he had eliminated the ability to thrust his right leg across the crease and perform a butterfly slide toward the right post to defend Tuch's shot.
Holtby also was squared to Eakin, who had made the pass from the low circle. Because of that, he wouldn't be able to use his left skate to push laterally in the butterfly slide across the crease without resetting. The backdoor post was now 135 degrees from where he was pointed. Holtby never would have been able to pull his left leg up and slide over and back in time to react to Tuch's imminent one-timer, because it wouldn't be a simple lateral slide; he would have had to push over and back. So instead, he reacted the only way he could -- thrusting the backside of his goal stick paddle in front of the massive empty net.
Tuch took the shot from the low slot just above the crease, as the Caps goalie swung his stick in the direction of the net. The puck hit the paddle a few inches off the ice and a few inches beneath Holtby's blocker on the stick. Because of the down-facing angle of the stick, Holtby was able to not only stop the puck, but also contain the rebound and quickly cover as Carlson and Jay Beagle scurried to aid their goaltender.
Opposing netminder Fleury was begrudgingly in awe of the save, following the game:
Holtby was behind the play a little bit because he was never really given a chance to catch up. The bad bounce off the end boards put him inside his own net, off balance and out of position. He recovered immediately, but the late setup forced him to react and commit a little prematurely. The resulting angle of his butterfly position prevented him from sliding across the crease to the far post and using his leg pad to make the save. What resulted was one of the best saves you'll see this season, especially once you consider the situation in which it was made.
The Stanley Cup Final continues with Game 3 on Saturday in Washington, D.C.