NEW YORK -- One day last summer, long before he would wander into the teeth of Madison Square Garden, Braden Holtby hired an airbrush artist in Sweden to paint a new motif onto his hockey mask. Holtby, from Marshall, Saskatchewan, asked for the image of a roller coaster, ridden by an unfazed bear -- a clear symbol of his bittersweet bond with Hershey, Pa. Hershey was home to the Capitals' top minor-league affiliate, the Bears; a dozen or so roller coasters; and, at this point, despite a sterling 1.79 goals-against average and 10-2-2 record with Washington last year, the young netminder himself.
"Hershey's a great place," explained Holtby's father, Greg, a farmer and former junior-hockey goalie. "But it wasn't where Braden was hoping to be."
Where his 22-year-old son finally ended up was well beyond any of the Holtbys' hopes and dreams. Yes, Braden lost to the Rangers on Saturday, 2-1, making him the goalie of yet another Washington team to fall short of the Eastern conference finals, a streak dating back to 1998. But then, neither Holtby nor his family had ever fathomed him getting here, and starting a game this deep into the NHL playoffs, this soon.
Remember: the professional who saved 29 of 31 shots tonight was a Hershey Bear as recently as March 17, up until injuries knocked Thomas Vokoun (groin) and Michal Neuvirth (left leg) off the Caps' depth chart. The franchise had no choice but to line up for the Braden Holtby Experience 14 times in a row--and the kid took them past Boston (led by 2011 Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas) and within one goal of New York (led by '12 favorite Henrik Lundqvist).
As thrill rides go, the 6'2", 203-pound Holtby faced more shots than any netminder in the postseason, 459, and saved 93.5 percent of them, allowing an average of 1.95. An absurd thirteen of his 14 postseason duels were decided by one goal, with six overtime periods scattered among them. He never did lose back-to-back games for seventh-seeded Washington (42-32-8), a run of 30 NHL starts dating back to January 20, 2011. And let's not forget: on Thursday, Braden's fiancée, Brandi Bodnar, gave birth to their first child, christened Benjamin Hunter Holtby. (The procedure had been medically induced, Braden said, in order to cooperate with Game 7.)
In the Garden after the game, wearing his red tights and red shirt and white socks, Holtby stood in the locker room, calmly taking questions, arms crossed. Yes, he really did believe that they had a chance to win it all. No, he didn't see much of the two goals the Rangers scored on him. (The first one, potted by Brad Richards, came on the first shot of the game.) Yes, he was proud of the way his teammates bought into Washington coach Dale Hunter's defense-minded system after Hunter took over for the fired Bruce Boudreau last November.
But something about this scene also seemed off. Given all the attention paid to Holtby's idiosyncratic hockey rituals -- during the national anthem, for instance, the goalie bounces rhythmically, shoulders bobbing, as if dancing to hip-hop in a very crowded elevator -- it was actually jarring to see the phenom in repose now, perfectly still, obviously bothered by the latest plunge on the roller coaster.
Holtby, it's safe to say, is a perfectionist with a competitive streak. He once called the feeling of being scored upon "the fire that's burning inside you," a feeling that causes him to "almost black out" and want to "tornado all the sticks" in the locker room. It was only in his teenage years, when Holtby started working with John Stevenson, an Alberta-based goalie coach and sports psychologist, that he learned to manage his emotions. "It's been a lot of growing up," Holtby likes to say. And in some ways, his composure on Saturday night was the best example yet.
The future remains bright. As Washington goalie coach Dave Prior notes, Holtby is already physically talented. He's strong enough to push opponents off the crease (a tactic which precipitated Rich Peverley's pseudo-slash and Holtby's legendary non-response); agile enough to record saves on full splits; quick enough to play matador with the five-hole and not get burnt. "Every game, he's been good," Washington winger Mike Knuble said. "It's a testament to his maturity." Likewise, there is excellent reason to believe that he is not another Steve Penney or Mike Moffat, goalies whose 15 minutes of fame prefigured a professional disappearance. Under this kind of pressure, on this kind of timeline, it is telling that Holtby has thrived. These last four weeks should mean quite a bit.
But only time will tell, of course. Back in the basement of the Garden, as Capitals staffers moved to dismantle the locker room around him, Holtby was officially relieved from his last duties of these playoffs. The ride was over. He waded through the journalists in the room, white socks still wet, and left footprints out the door.