Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner laughed when asked about the competitive nature of goaltender Braden Holtby, before offering an example of how it’s apparent even in practice. The 22-year-old netminder hates when any puck is in his net – even if it’s between a drill or between shots – Alzner explained.
No matter how one finds its way across the goal line, Holtby gets mad. It’s that fiery nature, though, that makes the Capitals enjoy playing in front of him.
“I think that’s great because you see him make these saves that only goalies like [Dominik] Hasek and Tim Thomas are making because they’re battling so hard to get every single puck – even if it looks like it’s never going to be possible,” Alzner said. “It’s fun to play in front of him when he’s doing things like that.”
Troy Brouwer echoed the sentiment: “He’s a big goalie who likes to challenge and has a lot of battle in him. You see it [against the Wild] when the pucks are in the crease and he’s fighting for position trying to find the puck. He never gives up and that’s why he’s a good goalie.”
As the Capitals host the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday in a crucial game loaded with playoff implications, Holtby may get a second consecutive start and his fourth since the team recalled him on March 18.
Coach Dale Hunter rarely divulges the identity of his starting goaltender prior to warmups. But while it may not be guaranteed that Holtby will get the nod against Buffalo, Hunter’s tendency to run with the hot hand in net leads one to believe that after a 28-save shutout in a 3-0 win over Minnesota on Sunday, the former 2008 draft pick will get another shot.
Hunter likes Holtby’s aggressiveness in net, along with his willingness to play the puck while understanding that things don’t always go as precisely as planned every time the goaltender leaves his crease.
“I like his puck-moving ability; I think he really helps our D,” Hunter said Monday after declining to name a starter. “If you watch the game, he’s moving the puck and making good plays with it and it’s risk-reward. Even the best goalie, [New Jersey’s Martin] Brodeur, gets burned once in a while, but you just shrug it off, and it wouldn’t bother [Holtby]. Whatever he does, it’s done and we move on.”
In three games since being recalled, Holtby is 2-0-1, giving up four goals on 89 shots for a .955 save percentage and 1.29 goals against average. What remains uncertain is whether continued strong performances from Holtby would prompt the Capitals to carry three goaltenders down the stretch.
Holtby was brought up when Tomas Vokoun aggravated a groin strain, but the veteran netminder is expected to be able to play again this week. To date, neither Vokoun nor Michal Neuvirth has truly seized the job as No. 1 netminder, and Hunter continues to lead with whoever is on a successful streak.
If Holtby strings together a few more key outings, could the Capitals lean on the player with 18 NHL games to his credit? Only Hunter and the rest of Washington’s coaching staff truly know.
No matter what the future may hold, Holtby insists he is accustomed to the uncertainty.
“It’s what I’ve dealt with the last couple years, so it’s not a huge shock,” Holtby said. “Everyone has to go through it. I understand it’s a business and everything like that, so once Vokey gets back healthy there’s a decision to be made and whatever they decide is best. I’ll be willing to play my best hockey wherever I am.”
More on the Capitals:
— Hunter: Contest vs. Sabres is like a Game 7
— Backstrom encouraged by practice Monday
— Ward improving, but questionable vs. Sabres
— El-Bashir: Ovechkin’s well-timed return to form
— Watch ESPN’s Alex Ovechkin piece
— Holtby makes a case to be No. 1 netminder