Braden Holtby faces obstacles to NHL wins mark
There's only one place where Braden Holtby wants to etch his name this season: Right alongside his teammates on the Stanley Cup.
But the Washington Capitals goalkeeper also has a chance to carve out a personal spot in history as well. Heading into an expected start on Tuesday against Carolina at the Verizon Center, Holtby is within range of Martin Brodeur's single-season NHL record of 48 wins.
Seven more victories and he'll equal the surefire Hall of Famer. Eight more, and he owns the mark outright.
And Holtby, who earlier this month was named to Team Canada for the World Cup, will pursue it with the backing of one of the best squads in recent memory. The Caps are providing 3.16 goals of support per game, second in the league. The penalty kill has been top-notch, clicking at 84.2%, fourth best. And his defense is doing a solid job limiting opportunities, holding opponents to just 28.9 shots per game, tied for ninth fewest.
The pieces are in place to mount an assault on the mark down the home stretch ... but there are obstacles in Holtby's path.
With just 14 games remaining on the schedule, Holtby is running out of track. Fast. That doesn't mean the mark is out of reach, but time isn't on his side.
The key will be starts. To date, he's claimed 41 victories in just 55 games, a remarkable .745 winning percentage. Assuming he can maintain that rate, Holtby must play at least 11 games to get the eight wins he needs to top Brodeur.
The problem: 11 starts may be out of reach.
The Caps have three back-to-backs remaining on the schedule, and it's all but certain that Holtby will sit out at least one game in each set to keep him fresh ahead of the playoffs. That alone cuts him down to 11 possible starts ... and that's not the only factor that will cost him.
• The play of Philipp Grubauer
Holtby's 41 wins match the career high he set last season when he appeared in 73 games. That backbreaking workload was made necessary by the unreliability of former partner Justin Peters. The journeyman keeper earned just three wins in 12 appearances, posting a GAA that was a full goal higher than Holtby's (3.25 to 2.22) and a save percentage that was miles away from the starter (.881 compared to .923). With a playoff spot on the line, Holtby was forced to start the final 25 games of the regular season.
That hasn't been an issue this year. In fact, Grubauer has been a revelation since stepping into the backup role, giving Trotz a legitimate go-to option down the stretch. The 24-year-old has allowed a single goal in three of his past five starts, and nine total over that stretch. And while he's faced a couple of soft touches in Toronto and Montreal, he's not being protected. He's seen action against top opponents including Boston, Los Angeles and San Jose over the past month, and has beaten both the Bruins and Kings.
A steady 1-2 punch between the pipes is the dream for a team focused squarely on the Cup. But Grubauer's performance, and ability to match up against the best, suggests he'll see more action than just a split of those back-to-backs down the stretch. And that could cost Holtby his shot.
• His own play
Holtby remains among the season's leaders in goals-against average (2.25, sixth) and save percentage (.922, tied for eighth), but it's fair to say he's not quite performing at the level he was earlier in the campaign.
A number of factors play into a goaltender's personal stats, but take them at face value for a moment. Holtby has allowed three-or-more goals in eight of his past 13 games. That equals the number of three-or-more games he posted through the season's first 31 games.
And that's far from the only troubling sign. He's allowed the game's first goal in four straight and nine of his past 10 starts. And in seven of his past 13 appearances—more than half—Holtby has posted a save percentage of .885 or lower.
Based on his larger body of work, there's a good chance that this is just a temporary rough patch. And the fact that he managed to win eight of those 13 games speaks to a resiliency that will be key down the stretch and into the postseason.
But Brodeur's record has withstood challenges from Roberto Luongo, Evgeni Nabokov, Pekka Rinne and Carey Price since it was set in 2006-07. We'll see if it can hold off Holtby's bid as well.