Braden Holtby has been counted out before.
For those with short memories, in the midst of the worst statistical season to that point in his career in 2017-18, Holtby lost his grip on the Washington Capitals’ starting goaltending job at the worst possible time. Young backup Philipp Grubauer was more consistent down the stretch and on April 1 was head coach Barry Trotz’s choice to man the net against the Pittsburgh Penguins for the season’s most important game on the road against the team’s biggest rival.
Grubauer made 36 saves that night, including a breathtaking stop on superstar Sidney Crosby, to lead the Caps to a 3-1 win and their third-straight Metropolitan Division regular-season title. Not only did the young netminder win a big game with playoff-seeding implications, he did it in a building that had been a house of horrors for the franchise in the past.
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Trotz wouldn’t tip his hand at that point with the playoffs looming, but Grubauer, who posted a 1.88 goals-against average (GAA) and .938 save percentage (SV%) for his previous 25 games entering the Penguins contest, would end up getting the starting nod in the Caps’ first two playoff games against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Those games didn’t go so well, and it was Holtby to the rescue.
The veteran entered the series to a chorus of “same old Caps” from fans and media as the team dropped the first two games. It took 33 saves from Holtby, a kind bounce off the post in overtime, five periods and a greasy second-overtime goal from Lars Eller in Game 3, but Washington prevailed, 3-2, and the rest is history.
Holtby went 16-7 in the 2018 Playoffs with a 2.16 GAA and .914 SV% – and of course made “The Save” to preserve a win in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals – to lead the Caps to their first Stanley Cup.
Familiar Territory for Holtby
Well, here we are again in 2020 as the reformatted playoffs approach.
Although not helped by Washington’s inconsistent defensive play throughout the shortened regular season, Holtby had his worst statistical campaign in 2019-20 with a 3.11 GAA and .897 SV%. Rookie Ilya Samsonov, the club’s likely future starter, put up better numbers to the tune of a 2.55 GAA and .913 SV% while going 16-6-2.
On top of that, the assumption all year has been that this would be Holtby’s last season in Washington. The salary-cap-strapped Capitals are seemingly set with younger, cheaper NHL-caliber goaltenders in their system, and their longtime starter is in the final year of his five-year contract, which carries a cap hit of $6.1 million.
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The goaltending controversy already was brewing in D.C. when the season was halted by COVID-19 in March. It was assumed that head coach Todd Reirden’s toughest lineup decision if play resumed would be determining which goalie would be his playoff starter: the former Vezina winner and Stanley Cup champion or the upstart rookie who is calm beyond his years.
With many fans already pushing Holtby out the door and Samsonov playing so well, there was no guarantee we would ever see the 30-year-old netminder, who has played his entire 10-year NHL career in the nation’s capital, between the pipes again for the Caps – whether play resumed or not.
But play is resuming, and Holtby already has things going his way.
Fighting Off Samsonov
Always the fighter, he has been on the ice working individually with goaltending coach Scott Murray for the past month. With a four-month physical and mental break and plenty of one-on-one time with his coach to work on tightening up the technical side of his game, Holtby has come into training camp laser focused and by all accounts in top form.
“I’ve had enough time to rest and recover and put in some good work here to make sure that I’m in the right shape mentally to go out here and put everything into every game,” Holtby said. “It depends on what your body’s been through, whether you have nagging injuries or whatever that the time off helps get rid of. In an 82-game schedule it’s usually the mental side that gets you. When playoff time comes that’s when it’s fun again, so it’s easier to get through the grind. Right now we’re going right into it, so it’s exciting.”
He has yet to see action in training camp after being designated “unfit to participate” in the team’s first five sessions. No timetable has been communicated, per league policy, for his return. Regardless, Reirden had no problem handing the starting job to Holtby as far back as mid-June.
“We’ll continue to evaluate that situation every day,” Reirden said of his goaltending contingent, which also includes Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley. “I felt confident about Braden being in that role when we talked a few weeks ago, and I made a firm statement that he was going to be our starter at the beginning of the playoffs. I said that with reason. I felt like his game was heading in a better direction at the end of the year. I knew that he was going to have an extended period of time with Scott Murray, our goalie coach, to be able to have them hitting on and connecting on all the things that they need to do to improve. Braden has looked really good, and I think his attitude has been outstanding.”
After their July 18 intrasquad scrimmage at Medstar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, VA, the Caps are scheduled for another week of workouts before heading to the Eastern Conference bubble in Toronto on July 26. They will face the Carolina Hurricanes in an July 29 exhibition game before playing their first game of a four-team round-robin mini-tournament that will determine the order of the top-four Eastern Conference seeds against Tampa Bay Aug. 3 at 4 p.m.
My focus right now is to win a championship, and moving forward, to find the next best place to win a championship.
Barring injury or illness, it’s clear that Holtby will be the guy in goal when the postseason gets underway. Very few goaltenders prove that they can carry a team to a title during their careers, so having someone in the starting role who is unflappable and already added that to his resume is an intangible that shouldn’t be downplayed.
Holtby has made it clear that we would like to finish his career in D.C., but that’s not what he’s focusing on right now. The goal is to win another Stanley Cup, and one way or another the rest will take care of itself.
“My focus right now is to win a championship, and moving forward, to find the next best place to win a championship,” Holtby said. “Hopefully it’s here and hopefully everything works out, but you never know. Right now you look at the moment, and we have an exciting opportunity to have some fun.”