Alex Tuch collected the skittering puck with absolutely nothing between him and the tying goal with two minutes left in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Braden Holtby reacted out of pure instinct.
He stretched back and lunged to his right with his stick, thrusting the paddle into the exact slot of air through which Tuch’s shot was headed for the net.
“Luckily, it hit me,” Holtby said with a shrug.
The Washington goalie’s coaches and teammates were not quite so calm about a save that will go down in Capitals history as the key to a 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday night, leveling the series at one game apiece.
The win was the Caps’ first-ever Stanley Cup Final victory — and the save might be a catalyst to even bigger things.
“To me, it was the hockey gods,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “They evened it up from the last game. Great save. You could see the emotion on our bench. Once he made that save, I knew we were going to win the game.”
Holtby made 37 saves, but he got help from earthly sources as well.
Alex Ovechkin scored a power-play goal, his first in a Stanley Cup Final, Brooks Orpik ended a personal 220-game goal drought with the eventual winner and Lars Eller added a goal and two assists.
“We refocus and pick each other up and that’s a sign of a good team,” Holtby said. “That’s one of our strengths.”
Game 3 is tomorrow night in Washington.
The Caps are just 4-5 at home in this post-season, but they will ride a wave of momentum after going into the Golden Knights’ daunting home arena and taking away home-ice advantage in Washington’s first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years.
After getting battered in the Vegas’ 6-4 series-opening win, Holtby made several big saves throughout Game 2, coming up particularly big while Washington killed a five-on-three disadvantage for 1 minute, 9 seconds earlier in the third period.
He capped his energetic performance with that jaw-dropping stick save on Tuch with 1 minute, 59 seconds to play.
“Holts just makes the save of the year,” Washington forward Jay Beagle said. “Maybe the save of a lifetime. It’s unreal.”
The T-Mobile Arena crowd was stunned, but after several months of watching this expansion team push through every obstacle, the Knights could not get around Holtby’s stick.
“Thank God he’s our goalie,” Ovechkin said. “He’s over there when we need him, and it was probably the save of the year for sure.”
The Caps overcame another big blow when they lost leading scorer Evgeny Kuznetsov to an upper-body injury in the first period after a big hit from Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb, but the Caps avoided any hotheaded retaliation and concentrated on a gritty effort that was enough to even the series.
James Neal and Shea Theodore scored, while Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 23 shots for the upstart Knights, who could not summon their usual clutch magic, even with lengthy man advantages.
Thanks to Holtby’s 15 saves, Vegas finally went scoreless in the third for the first time in six periods in this series.
Washington handed the Golden Knights only their second home defeat — the first in regulation — in Vegas’ nine post-season games.
“I think it’s really important that we take a step back and take a deep breath and know that you’re not going to win this series in two games,” Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “We’re a special group. We can go out and win games on the road. We’ve done it all playoffs.”
So have the Capitals, who have improved to 9-3 on the road after two games in this frequently chaotic series.
The Caps have made the playoffs in 13 of 19 seasons since their only other trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, but had not managed to get their fans back to the final round until this year.
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