April 12, 2016

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) When Washington Capitals players see an opposing goaltender bobbling the puck or struggling to make a save, they yell to each other that he looks shaky. When they look back to their own crease, they rarely see that with Braden Holtby.

''You can really tell when a goalie's confident or not,'' center Nicklas Backstrom said. ''He's had that confidence for the last two years, that calmness.''

Holtby is going into his fourth Stanley Cup playoffs, a long way from his debut in 2012 when, due to injuries, he was brought up from the minors to active duty at the most important time. On Saturday he tied Martin Brodeur's single-season wins record and has clearly established himself as an elite NHL goalie.

''He's just getting better every year,'' said Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, who was with the Capitals when they drafted Holtby. ''Now, instead of a boy, he looks just like a young man, with a lot of confidence.''

Holtby went 48-9-7 this season with a 2.20 goals-against average and .922 save percentage, ranking among the league leaders in those categories. His heavy workload of 66 games is a stark contrast to the seven he played as a call-up in 2011-12, but Holtby doesn't know if that experience has made things any easier for him this time around.

''You take it (and) hopefully the pressure situations you're more comfortable in,'' Holtby said. ''But at the same time there's things that get harder the more games you've played without the Stanley Cup. There's always challenges. It's just how mentally prepared you are, how mentally tough you are, how long you're willing to battle through everything.''

Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said Holtby appears ready for the challenge.

''He looks good, he looks calm, he looks confident'' Alzner said heading into Washington's first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, which begins Thursday. Holtby's save percentage dipped to .909 in the second half of his starts this season after it was .933 in the first half, but this is his time to shine.

''I think that him being able to get that wins record at the end of the year is probably good for him so he cannot think about that and just worry about plugging away like he has all season,'' Alzner said.

Holtby was a revelation for the Capitals in the 2012 playoffs, almost singlehandedly beating the Boston Bruins and taking the New York Rangers to seven games. He was even better for two rounds last year, and teammates have noticed his growth along the way.

''He's come a long way, for sure,'' forward Jason Chimera said. ''He used to be a little more hot-headed. He's a lot more calm now, he's a lot more mature and he's playing a lot better. I think he forgets things a lot faster, which is great, and he moves on from things quite quickly, which is a great thing.''

General manager Brian MacLellan credited goaltending coach Mitch Korn and better team defense for helping Holtby but also said the 26-year-old is ''at the top of his game'' going into the playoffs. Coach Barry Trotz knows he doesn't have to do much work with Holtby, other than perhaps helping him stay in a good state of mind.

Holtby understands the gravity of the playoffs and sounds ready to embrace another opportunity. Less naive than he was early in his NHL career, Holtby is a full-fledged veteran who wants to put the Capitals on his back.

''Every passing year it gets more pressure-filled, the fact that there's more weight on your shoulders if you put it there,'' Holtby said. ''I've tried to take the same approach to every year. I know where my ceiling ... Right now I'm just focused on what I can do to help this team win every game and see what happens.''


Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno.

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