2012 Stanley Cup playoffs: Capitals goalie Braden Holtby has learned to focus, manage his energy

When Braden Holtby picks up the water bottle and flicks drops toward the corner of the ice, tracking each with his eyes honed in, the idea is to return his brain to the present and the immediate future, to what’s happening at that very moment and what’s about to transpire in the next. It is a concentration mechanism, odd for a goalie who once only wanted to learn the technical aspects of the game.

“It’s moving, and it’s a little hard to see,” Holtby said of those drops. “It kind of brings me back to neutral.”

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.

“There was a lot of learning in there, a lot of calls home, a lot of talks,” Greg Holtby said. “We had to balance: You can’t blame your team for everything, yet you can’t take all the blame yourself, either.”

“One thing I’ve had to learn over the years was, I get very negative on myself,” Braden Holtby said. “I blame myself a lot for the losses we had in juniors. That would play into effect. I’d try to do too much, and that never works out well.”

Those two themes — beating himself up and trying to do too much — followed Holtby into the pros, and even a bit today. “Sometimes he’s a little overly critical,” Capitals goalies coach Dave Prior said on the eve of the playoffs. “There’s a part of him that wants to do as much as possible to help the team, and sometimes less is more. You have to really keep that in check.”

Keeping it in check was a process that began in juniors, when Saskatoon hired a goalie coach named John Stevenson. Even when Stevenson arrived, Holtby’s natural competitiveness was in full bloom. Blades Coach Lorne Molleken would begin practices by having the goalies put the pucks in the net to get them out of the way. Holtby would put each and every puck on top of the net.

“Under no circumstances would he ever put a puck in the net,” Stevenson said.

“We had to be very patient with him,” Molleken said, “and really work with him.”

Stevenson did, and still does, a good bit of that work. A sports psychologist by trade, Stevenson — with some help from Greg Holtby — eventually convinced Braden that, in addition to learning which leg to use to get up after going down for a save, he must also learn how to calm himself after a shot, a save, a goal, a win, a loss. Stevenson calls the process “knowing your numbers.”

“Zero is you’re asleep and 10 is you’ve had 900 Red Bulls,” Stevenson said. “And Braden was all over the map. It’d be Friday night, and we’d be playing Medicine Hat, and he’d be a 14. Then Sunday afternoon, he’d be a 2.”

Holtby, then, had to learn some energy management. Stevenson worked with him on breathing techniques meant to bring his “number” back to, say, a 7, regardless of the situation. Holtby understands that “a lot of people think flicking the water bottle is weird.” But it is also a measure of how serious he was about embracing all he needed to become a pro, to get to the NHL — in which he has now played a total of 23 regular season and playoff games. Stevenson taught Holtby how to “recognize, regroup and refocus,” whether the opponent was the Boston Bruins or the Brandon Wheat Kings. So before each period, he shuffles through his crease in the same pattern, then pantomimes approaching shots from the circle, the center, the boards — no matter what anyone thinks of how the elaborate process looks.

“He’s amazing at visualization, and he’s so open,” Stevenson said. “Of all the goalies I’ve had, Braden is, bar none, the hardest-working guy I’ve ever worked with. You give him a nugget, and he will go with it.”

Now, he has more than a few nuggets with which to go — 72 saves on 74 shots in the first two games against the Bruins. Vokoun, the veteran whose signing as a free agent in the offseason initially rattled Holtby, hasn’t played since March 29, and there’s no telling when or if he could be back from a groin problem. Neuvirth, injured in the penultimate game of the regular season, again took shots Sunday, and he might be able to back up as soon as Monday. But in the hours before the puck drops, it will be Holtby preparing for the start, imagining himself from various vantage points — the stands, center ice, his own crease.

“Just mentally doing that, seeing myself make saves, seeing myself look comfortable, feel comfortable,” Holtby said. “It calms me down and makes me focus on my game.”

For a period of less than a week, his game has been equaled only by Boston’s Tim Thomas, who turned 38 Sunday and has been named both the NHL’s outstanding goaltender and the MVP of the playoffs. Each has allowed two goals in more than 144 minutes of play over two games. Monday, they will both return to the same sheet of ice, with the hockey world knowing that what was once considered a mismatch — Thomas vs. Holtby, Bruins vs. Caps — has now very much returned to neutral.

Staff writer Katie Carrera contributed to this report.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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