Caps' Holtby a top goalie in the making
Steve Simmons, QMI Agency
|Washington Capitals Braden Holtby makes a save against the New York Rangers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on May 5, 2012 in Washington City. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images/AFP)
Two days last summer told you how hard it has been to be Braden Holtby, goaltending prospect in waiting.
On July 1, he believed he had a job with the Washington Capitals when the team traded Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche. The next day, that job disappeared without him doing anything wrong, when the Caps surprisingly won the rather low free agent bidding war for Tomas Vokoun.
Just like that he was on the fringe, one minute in, one minute out, all in a summer’s day. Professional hockey can be that fickle for a goaltender trying to find his place.
A goaltender who has often believed more in himself than those who happen to employ him.
The Holtby story - and his emergence is exactly that - took another turn in March when he was recalled after a disappointing season in the American Hockey League. Those who know him best figure he didn’t respond well to the uncertainty that surrounded him. And it probably got worse in his mind when the chosen one, Vokoun, didn’t deliver much to the wonky Capitals.
Holtby was called up by coach Dale Hunter in March when the Caps were running out of time and goaltenders. He was especially sharp in back-to-back road games against Detroit and Philadelphia late in the season. “We got three of four points in those games,” said coach Dale Hunter. “I don’t think we were in the playoffs at the time. Those points were huge for us.”
The points were huge, just not for Holtby, who was called up as an injury fill-in. He won NHL first star of the week honours on March 13. That didn’t last. Two weeks later, on March 27, he was sent back to the AHL. Then back to Washington again to start the final game of the regular season. And every game since. Saturday was playoff game No. 11 - 18 games in all for the Caps this season.
In Round 1 of the playoffs it was Holtby against Tim Thomas, last year’s Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Now it’s Round 2 and it’s Holtby against Henrik Lundqvist, who should win this year’s Vezina and Hart Trophies, and maybe a Conn Smythe if the New York Rangers happen to get that far. The bearded kid from Saskatoon, son of a junior goaltender, an avid reader of self help books, doing everything he can for the suddenly contending Capitals who are down to a best of three against the best goalie on the planet and the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference.
It is Holtby and the Capitals shot blockers. He blocks shots. They block shots. On Saturday night at the Verizon Center, after the marathon that was Game 3, Holtby stopped just 18 shots. The Capitals skaters blocked 26.
Lundqvist probably can’t be beat mano a mano. But if it’s Holtby blocking shots, and Karl Alzner and Jeff Schultz and just about everybody in red getting in the shooting lanes, then it makes life difficult for the offensively challenged Rangers. It makes the impossible seem possible. It means a kid like Holtby, drafted in the fourth round of 2008, the sixth goaltender picked that year - and not one of them chosen ahead has played as many as two games - remains the personal surprise of these Stanley Cup playoffs.
Lundqvist, Saturday afternoon, had to be brilliant and was. When isn’t he? He calmed down a one-sided game early on the way only he can. He makes stops that often defy explanation. Holtby, facing just 20 shots, fewer than any game against Boston, coming off a 49 shot game in six periods, had to be mistake free.
“It’s not me versus him,” said Holtby, who keeps his self-help books close by. They are his goalie coach. He reads the The Greatness Guide by Robin Sharma, the Powerful Secrets for Getting to World Class. And he reads Mind Gym by Gary Mack, An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence. And then he reads them again and again, especially when he needed some kind of support. Last July, this winter, in March when he played so well and got shown the door, he needed that support. He found it in words.
Now he’s finding it in his play. Holtby has a 1.94 goals against average for a team that plays almost nothing but one goal games. His save percentage is .933. The numbers are not far from Lundqvist, not far from the spectacular Mike Smith. From his end of the ice, he watches and admires Lundqvist, learns from him even.
“He’s the best in the game. You know that,” said Holtby. “But I can’t be looking at him. I can’t be admiring. I’ve got a job to do. We want to beat that guy.”