With both Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth banged up and unable to strap on the pads, Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter had little choice but to give the nod to the 22-year-old Holtby for Game 1 of this best-of-seven, first round series between the Caps and Bruins at TD Garden on Thursday evening.
And for the first 60-plus minutes of hockey, he didn't let his coach down.
But midnight struck at 1:18 of overtime for the Cinderella story that is Braden Holtby when Boston's Chris Kelly streaked down the left wing and blasted a shot into the far corner of the net, giving the Bruins a dramatic 1-0 victory over the downtrodden Caps.
The win gave Boston a 1-0 lead in the series heading into Game 2 Saturday afternoon.
As the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins swarmed their teammate in celebration, Alex Ovechkin and the Caps skated directly to Holtby to reassure him that this loss was not his fault.
In fact, this game would not have even gone to overtime had it not been for the heroics by the kid from Lloydminster, Sask.
“He played a hell of a game,” Ovechkin said. “Most of the time he kept us in the game. I think he was nervous but after the first shot, you could see he was calm and on a roll.”
If the kid keeps playing like this, this series could go a lot longer than many have predicted.
For two periods, the Caps didn’t deserve to even be this close. They had been outshot 26-7, including 17-2 in the second period. They couldn’t mount any offensive pressure. And here was Holtby, playing in his first playoff game, somehow finding a way to hold down the fort.
Consider that Holtby came into the game with 21 career NHL starts. At the other end of the ice, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas had 25 starts alone during last season’s run to the Stanley Cup.
Yet, like Penney and Dryden had done decades earlier, Holtby continuously frustrated Bruins shooters. Slapshots, wrist shots, bank shots, nothing was going in.
Not in regulation, anyway.
Just over a minute into overtime, Thomas made an outstanding stop, angling the puck toward teammate Joe Corvo. Moments later, Corvo found Kelly streaking toward the Caps zone.
From there, let the debate begin.
When Kelly scored, there was speculation that the puck might have glanced off Caps defenceman Dennis Wideman’s stick. Even if it did, Holtby wasn’t making any excuses.
“Yeah, I felt all right,” Holtby said. “But I wasn’t there for the boys in overtime.
“I’ll definitely be better for that.”
Deflection or no deflection by Wideman, coach Dale Hunter claimed it was “the perfect shot.
“Not many goalies would have had that,” he added.
Just down the hall, Kelly was wearing a thick chain around his neck -- one the size of chains you tow things with. It was the brainchild of Bruins defenceman Andrew Ference as part of a new tradition being forged by the Bruins, awarding the chain to the game’s hero.
“It just shows that, as a team, there are no weak links,” he said.
Holtby certainly wasn’t one for the Caps. And if he plays this way in Game 2 here on Saturday. the Caps will have a very legitimate chance to even this series.