Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

It was a memorable hockey autumn and winter around here, but now we find ourselves on the brink of a spring cut cruelly short at the midway point.

For that we can blame one person above all others: Braden Holtby, a 25-year-old goaltender for the Capitals who is given to pregame meditating on the bench and in-game stopping of Islanders and Rangers shots on the ice.

Oh, well. At least the Rangers can reasonably hope the pressure finally will hit the young man from a small town in Saskatchewan when he wakes up today in the middle of Manhattan, facing the biggest night of his career to date.

Or not.

"I like playing here," he said, sitting in the visiting dressing room at the Garden before the second-round series against the Rangers began.

"It's a city where you go to work. There's not much sitting around in this city and just relaxing. It's a very industrious city, and I like that. You get up in the morning and the city's buzzing and you feel like you need to accomplish something and do something.

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"Good fan support and probably the most famous building in the world. It's a fun place to try to challenge yourself."

Uh oh.

OK, so Holtby does not seem to be an easily intimidated sort, and he sounds like he might consider buying a nice little pied-a-terre in Tribeca after he signs his next contract.

Plus, he is playing brilliantly, which is the worst thing that can happen to a favored team in the NHL playoffs.


Who wins the second-round playoff series?

Rangers in 7 Capitals in 5 Capitals in 6 Capitals in 7

Hot goalies have been turning things upside down this time of year since long before Holtby was born.


But this cannot go on forever, and the Rangers insist they will not give in to their frustration over getting repeated scoring chances and repeatedly failing to convert.

So a rerun of last year's comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the second round against the Penguins would shock no one, especially since the Rangers are playing far better now than they were at the same point then.

And yet, when every game is a one-goal game and you have to win three in a row . . . let's just say there figures to be some tension in the "World's Most Famous Arena" tonight.

Journalists kept reminding the Rangers after their 2-1 loss in Game 4 on Wednesday about last year's comeback, and the Rangers kept nodding dutifully and agreeing it can be done again.

"Yeah, we know what it takes," said Rick Nash after another 60 minutes during which his goal-scoring ledger for the playoffs remained stuck at one.

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The Rangers did not practice Thursday, perhaps to give their legs and psyches a rest, perhaps to give Nash and Martin St. Louis a break from answering reporters' questions about their lack of scoring.

Anyway, back to Holtby, who in Game 4 illustrated how he has come to dominate the series when he made a nice save on Alex Ovechkin, one of the best players in the world -- and his teammate.

Ovechkin accidentally had redirected a puck that was headed straight for the net behind Holtby.

It has been that kind of spring for the Capitals, who last reached a conference final in 1998, when Holtby was 8 years old. Their coach, Barry Trotz, somehow lasted 15 seasons in Nashville without ever reaching a conference final before he joined the Caps last summer.

All that could change Friday night. Did I mention that after playing in an NHL-high 73 regular-season games, Holtby now has a 1.46 goals-against average and .950 save percentage in the postseason?

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So, to review: Holtby will wake up in Big Town today invigorated and feeling the "need to accomplish something."

The Rangers' wake-up call will be due at 7 p.m.