Goodness, how to stay in neutral now? When the Washington Capitals take to the Verizon Center ice Monday night for the first time in these NHL playoffs, they will be tied with the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins at one game apiece not because Alex Ovechkin has returned to his all-world form, not because the Capitals of 2012 are acting like the Capitals of 2010 — all offensive sizzle with no playoff payoff.
Rather, they are tied with the Bruins because they are sound defensively, and because a 22-year-old goalie who five weeks ago was yanked from a minor league game in St. John’s, Newfoundland, after he gave up five goals has somehow transformed himself into one of the central story lines of the playoffs. Holtby — a Hershey Bear for 40 games this regular season, a Capital for seven— leads the NHL postseason in save percentage, is tied for the lead in goals against average, and has for the time being absolved Capitals Coach Dale Hunter of any responsibility to resolve a goalie controversy. Yes, both Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun — goalies who outrank Holtby in both pedigree and accomplishment — remain injured, to varying degrees. But Hunter could stand Sunday and say confidently and sensibly, “ Holtsy’s our goalie,” and move on.
“My game really didn’t change too much,” Holtby said Sunday after the Capitals worked through an optional skate at their Arlington training complex. “It was basically the way we played, the way the game was played as a whole. That’s why I was successful.”
That’s the practical, modest explanation for how Holtby stopped 43 of 44 shots in an exhausting, 2-1 double overtime victory in Game 2. The roots of this performance, though, extend to the basement of a farmhouse on the plains of Marshall, Saskatchewan, where the only son of a former goalie — with no neighbors nearby in a town of barely 600 people — had no choice but to learn by shooting a tennis ball and stopping it himself, then doing it over again.
“It was funny and pathetic all at the same time,” said his father, Greg. “He spent a lot of time like that. But he’s sort of that kind of person. He’s reflective, and he watches and learns.”
He learned first from Greg, who played two years for the Saskatoon Blades, a major junior team 160 miles southeast of the Holtbys’ farm, where three generations have raised cattle and grown wheat and barley and canola. “He’s the reason I wanted to be a goalie when I was little,” Braden said.
He learned, too, through some hard times in his first two seasons with the Blades himself. A ninth-round draft pick — and thus potentially an afterthought with Saskatoon — Holtby found himself in goal 51 times in 2006-07, when he was 17, and another 64 the following year. He faced 3,269 shots those two seasons, a barrage. He won just 42 of those games. As a kid, he became something of a stick-breaker because he would grow so miffed when allowing a goal. As a teenager, he had to resist that urge. It wasn’t easy.