Capitals fall short to Stars upon Braden Holtby’s return to Capital One Arena

After the minutes-long video tribute ended, Braden Holtby emerged from the Capital One Arena tunnel to the delight of the roaring crowd. Now with the Dallas Stars, Holtby took in the standing ovation around him — nodding in approval. It was his first return to the arena since leaving the Capitals in 2020.

Holtby didn’t end up playing against his former team because of an injury. But his current squad may not have been the team that needed him the most.

The red-hot Capitals had their four-game winning streak snapped Sunday with a 3-2 loss to the Starsa defeat that also saw their eight-game point steak end.

Washington‘s Vitek Vanecek, who has become the team’s primary goalie in the wake of Holtby’s departure, had 20 saves on 23 shots — with two of the three goals allowed coming while the Capitals were on the penalty kill.

Sunday’s game came on the eve of the NHL’s trade deadline. Teams have until 3 pm Monday to make a deal, and slightly less than three weeks ago, the Capitals looked like they were headed for a quiet day. Amid a team slump, general manager Brian MacLellan told reporters he was less inclined to be “aggressive” as usual because of Washington’s poor start to the new year. MacLellan said the Capitals had fallen from contender status, which makes it harder to part with draft capital or prospects.

Then a funny thing happened for the Capitals: They got hot.

After MacLellan’s March 2 remarks and before Sunday’s loss, the Capitals went 7-0-1 — including three wins over the first-place Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames, who lead their respective divisions. The surge raised the question of whether MacLellan would rethink his previous position.

Capitals coach Peter Laviolette has played it coy. He downplayed the idea that the executive’s comments motivated the group.

“It’s a long year,” Laviolette said. “There’s always a pocket where you’re good. There’s always a pocket where you’re bad. … Never, through the course of 82 games in a regular season, does a year go exactly the way you want it.”

If the Capitals were to make a move, where would they look to upgrade? Adding a veteran goaltender seems like an obvious fit, and that notion was only reinforced Sunday against the Stars.

Just 2 minutes and 17 seconds into the contest, Stars winger Alexander Radulov got Dallas on the board when he chipped one in on a deflection near the side of the net. While the goal may not have been entirely all on Vanecek, perhaps a veteran could corral the rebound before Radulov had the chance to get it.

Vanecek, with a .919 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average, has been the most consistent netminder for the Capitals this season — outplaying Ilya Samsonov — but ill-timed goals are something that MacLellan admitted he was concerned about earlier this month.

“It’s not the overall save percentage, it’s when and how the goals happen,” MacLellan said.

That idea — the best goalies make saves when it counts — was only further highlighted when Holtby was honored with a two-minute video tribute shortly after Radulov’s goal. As part of the montage, Holtby’s iconic leaping save during Game 2 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final was shown because how could it not be? The moment prompted a loud cheer out of the Capital One Arena, but the spectators got even louder when Holtby was shown on the jumbotron.

By most accounts, Holtby — amid a bounce-back year for the 32-year-old — isn’t thought to be available at the deadline, so a reunion appears unlikely. The biggest name out there for Washington is former Pittsburgh Penguins rival Marc -Andre Fleury, but the Chicago Blackhawks will likely have no shortage of suitors with the Minnesota Wild and the Edmonton Oilers also rumored as possible destinations.

Still, against the Stars, the Capitals didn’t do Vanecek any favors in front of the net, either. Washington’s penalty kill allowed two goals thanks to penalties on defensemen Martin Fehervary (tripping) and Nick Jensen (interference). Dallas’ Roope Hintz scored both of Dallas’ power-play goals, the first on a backhand to make it 2-0 in the first period and later on tap in to make it 3-1 in the second.

The Capitals’ first goal also came on a power play when captain Alex Ovechkin blasted in a one-timer near his signature spot by the left circle. The score was the Russian star’s 40th of the year — tying him with Wayne Gretzky for the most 40 -goal seasons in NHL history with 12.

In the third period, defenseman Dmitry Orlov sniped in Washington’s second goal of the evening to make 3-2 with 11:04 left in the game.

Washington had a golden opportunity late when they went on a power play, but couldn’t capitalize.

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