This season, shortened though it was, marked the first time in recent memory that there was no question to who was the top choice in net for the Capitals. Braden Holtby not only earned the vast majority of starts, but became the goaltender both players and Coach Adam Oates expected to anchor the team night in and night out.
Holtby, 23, was unfazed by a shaky start in the first two games of the season that were as much a product of his teammates’ struggles adapting to a new system as his own efforts. When Michal Neuvirth was pulled after allowing a bad goal on Feb. 7 – the Capitals’ 5-2 loss in Pittsburgh that marked a 2-8-1 start and the low point in those early weeks – it created an opportunity for Holtby to stake his claim to the top spot on the depth chart.
The Saskatchewan native started 13 of the next 14 contests and, for the most part, was a steadying influence as the Capitals started to find their identity under Oates. Washington went 8-5 in that stretch and even though Neuvirth would see spot duty in mid-March, there was little doubt that Washington would rely on Holtby down the stretch.
Holtby finished with 35 starts, a 23-12-1 record, 2.58 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in the regular season.
“If you’re not improving every year, you’re doing something wrong,” said Holtby, who played 25 AHL games during the lockout as well. “It was nice to get sort of a full season in, and every little experience can help if you use it the right way.”
When Holtby received the nod in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, it marked the first time in more than a decade that the same goaltender who finished a playoff series for the Capitals one year went on to start the next postseason. (Olie Kolzig was the last to do so in 1999-00 and 2000-01.) He finished with a 2.22 goals-against average and .922 save percentage but still had a few head-scratching moments, arguably none bigger than his failed clearing attempt in Game 4 that resulted in a goal against, in the first round against the Rangers.
What’s interesting, though, is that despite how heavily the team relied on Holtby, General Manager George McPhee dismissed the notion that there was a pecking order in net heading into 2013-14.
“I don’t view it as a competition and I don’t know that we have a hierarchy. I think that both of those goaltenders are outstanding and there’s no reason they can’t be the best goalies in the league next year,” McPhee said last week. “They’re both really good young goalies and they’re only going to get better with more experience. The guy we played against [New York’s Henrik Lundqvist] is an experienced goaltender but our guy was just as good as he was and he’s seven or eight years younger, but Michal Neuvirth’s a heck of a goalie. There’s no reason why he can’t be one of the best in this league. He’s as talented as anybody in this league and Holtby has really come along, he’s a really talented goaltender. So I have a lot of faith in both of them.”
Neuvirth, 24, started in 12 contests this year (2.74 GAA, .910 save percentage) but made only three appearances in the final 37 games of the regular season. There might have been opportunity for him to play more had he not missed three scheduled starts with illness and injury, but Neuvirth never re-established himself after being pulled from that loss to the Penguins.
“It’s just what if. The season’s over. I’ve just got to take some lesson from it and you know, obviously it was a frustrating season,” Neuvirth said. “It was tough to watch Holtsy play, but you know, I am pro, and I was studying every game, and you know, like I said, he was playing great and there was no need to change anything. You never know what’s gonna happen, and all I can control is to be in the best shape I can and be ready for training camp.”
Both Holtby and Neuvirth were slated to become restricted free agents this summer but the Capitals inked them both to new two-year deals during the season. Holtby, who was coming off his entry-level deal, received a two-year, $3.7 million contract while Neuvirth, on his third NHL contract, received a two-year, $5 million deal.
The Capitals have been content to stockpile goaltending talent in recent years with Holtby, Neuvirth and Philipp Grubauer, who is expected to head into next year as the top netminder for the AHL’s Hershey Bears.
In news conferences over the past several months, McPhee has routinely dispelled any notion that Washington can’t continue with both Holtby and Neuvirth, competitive young goaltenders, vying for the top spot at the NHL level.
“Isn’t that what you want? Honestly?” McPhee said on breakdown day. “I don’t want one good goalie and then a pylon. You want two good goalies and we do, and they’re good and they’re young and there’s so much upside with these kids. They’re such good goalies.”