After their Stanley Cup hopes were raised and dashed by a parade of goalies, the Capitals have found a real keeper in Braden Holtby.
“Just another day for him,” the Capitals defenseman said of Holtby’s stellar 31-save performance in Washington’s dramatic, last-second 2–1 victory over the Rangers on Thursday night in New York. “Making some huge saves for us. Good rebounds, good plays with the puck. Under the bright lights here, it’s tough to feel calm but he looked good.”
Holtby certainly kept his cool in the glare of his matchup against New York’s goaltending King, Henrik Lundqvist, especially in the first period when the Caps’ defense allowed 12 shots on goal (more than he'd faced in all of Game 7 vs. the Islanders in the first round). He wasn’t rattled when he allowed Jesper Fast’s goal on a double deflection that tied the game at 1–1 with 4:39 to go in regulation. Or when he took a stick to the throat from Rangers forward Tanner Glass.
“When we have little times of the game when we’re not on our game, that’s when we count on him most to help us out, bail us out,” Alzner said. “And that’s exactly what he did. It was nice. They had a couple shifts where they had a lot of flurries, three, four shots on one shift. He stayed tall and calm and confident and that was great.”
Unlike Game 7 of the Isles series, Holtby had a much busier night in the opener against Rangers and he preferred it that way. “You feel like you’re doing more, like you’re helping more,” he said adding, “if we play that way, like we did in Game 7 against the Islanders, I don’t care how many shots we get. We’ll be successful.”
Holtby, 25, who prides himself on his mental game, has worked with a sports psychologist to prepare for games with visualization exercises and enhance his ability to stay focused. The effort has paid off with his emergence as a force in goal for the Capitals this season. While other netminders such as Montreal’s Carey Price, Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk and Ottawa’s Andrew Hammond drew much of the attention during the regular season, Holtby quietly became a true workhorse, playing in a career- and league-high 73 games. He finished tied for second in the NHL with 41 wins, tied for seventh in save percentage (.923), and fifth in goals-against average (2.22). In the Capitals’ first round series against the Islanders, a stomach illness hindered him in Washington’s 4–1 loss in Game 1 and kept him out of Game 2, but since then he's been a rock, surrendering only eight goals in his last six games.
This season has been Holtby’s breakout and a huge relief for the Capitals, who have been seeking a Stanley Cup-caliber starter since the glory days of Olaf Kolzig, who backstopped the team to its first and only appearance in the final (a four-game sweep by Detroit in 1998). Since Kolzig's departure in 2008, Cristobal Huet, Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov, Thomas Vokoun, Michal Neuvirth and Jaroslav Halak have come and gone, occasionally raising hopes with stretches of promising play only to disappoint as Washington failed to get beyond the second round. For a time it seemed that Holtby would join that list.
After Vokoun and Neuvirth were injured before the 2012 playoffs, Holtby, a fourth-round draft pick by Washington in 2008, burst onto the scene by playing in all 14 of the Capitals’ postseason games. He helped dethrone Tim Thomas and the defending Cup champion Bruins in a seven-game first-round and extend the Rangers to seven in the second. His sparkling numbers—1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage—once again made it appear that the Caps had found their stopper. But after a solid, lockout-shortened 2013 season, Holtby and Washington were eliminated by the Rangers in the first round, and last season he struggled, briefly losing his starting job to Philipp Grubauer.
The goalie carousel seemed to be turning again. Then everything changed during the off-season when defense-minded coach Barry Trotz was hired. Todd Reirden, who’d been coaching the defense corps in Pittsburgh, was brought in along with two top tier free agent blueliners in Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.
“It changes our whole dynamic,” Holtby says of the acquisitions of Orpik and Niskanen. “Adding those two guys to any team is obviously a benefit.
“But what we had before, we put way too much emphasis on [John Carlson] and [Alzner]. They were playing too many hard minutes, getting beat up. It’s hard to gain confidence when you’re playing against top lines 20 minutes a night. So you spread it out, and all of a sudden there’s room for them to move around, there’s room for [Mike Green] to play his game. It does a lot to the team dynamic.”
The improved defense, Alex Ovechkin’s MVP-quality season, and the Capitals’ new physical style of play have surely contributed to Holtby's success. But the finishing touches came with the arrival of goaltending guru Mitch Korn who had worked with Trotz in Nashville for 16 seasons.
“Braden has developed with Korn … He’s been one of the great guys for the goaltenders,” Trotz said. “Braden has been benefiting from Mitch’s experience. He’s a great teacher and that’s why I think with Braden’s mindset and his talent and Mitch’s knowledge and his way to teach and communicate, it's been a really good fit.”
Korn is helping Holtby to fully develop his natural style of play, allowing him to take risks with the full confidence that the goalie’s talent, focus and athleticism will make up for any mistakes. So if the Caps are to take revenge on New York after being ousted by the Rangers in each of their past two meeting, Holtby is going to be a huge reason why. That was clear in Game 1.
After Washington’s parade of goaltending hopefuls, you’d think someone like Karl Alzner, who has been with the team since 2008, would be at least pleasantly surprised but he’s seen enough of Braden Holtby now to believe that the Capitals finally have themselves the real deal in net.