When this Washington Capitals’ season ends, particularly if there is no push to reach the playoffs, there will be an argument their entire endeavor hinged on the games just past: Monday at home against Pittsburgh, Tuesday at the Penguins’ place.
Desperate for points, facing their supposed rivals, clearly the class of the division, the Capitals lost consecutive games. Both times Coach Adam Oates faced a choice of whom to put in net. Both times he went with Jaroslav Halak. Both times Halak gave his team a chance. Both times Braden Holtby watched.
“This situation,” Holtby said Thursday, “is a normal situation for a goalie.”
Halak arrived just more than a week ago, right at the NHL’s trade deadline. Since Holtby played in Boston on the first night Halak suited up in a Capitals sweater, Halak has started three straight games, including on those consecutive nights against the Penguins. He has played well enough, stopping 80 of 87 shots, to reasonably support the theory he gave the Capitals their best chance. He and his expiring contract were brought in to make a push for the playoffs, even if that push is petering out, and because of that, he may well be in net Friday night against Vancouver, the latest must-win in a month full of nothing else.
Maybe Halak will help the Capitals get to the playoffs for the seventh straight season. Maybe he won’t.
But when next season begins, Holtby could very well be the Capitals’ starter in goal.
And thus, the tightrope: How do you go about making a move to help the present without shaking what’s supposed to be part of the foundation for the future?
At stake is the 24-year-old Holtby: clearly on the rise when he won a playoff series against Boston two years ago, stuck in neutral — at best — now.
“It’s obviously been tougher than usual,” Holtby said of a season in which he was part of a three-goalie mix at one point, then watched his team trade for a veteran at his own position. “I think there’s a lot of things I’ve felt I’ve done very well throughout the year, and obviously there’s things I’d like to work on. But based on everything that’s gone on, I think I’m on the right track.”
The Capitals seemed to understand the delicate nature of all this the moment they traded for Halak, 28, who has played in 263 NHL games to Holtby’s 98. General Manager George McPhee went out of his way to praise Holtby, even as he welcomed the man who might well play the most crucial games going forward. McPhee spoke only of upgrading “the tandem.”
“We love Braden Holtby,” McPhee said the day of the trade. “Love his talent, love his character, love the way he battles. He’s going to be here a while, a long time. There’s lots to like about him. He’s only . Olie Kolzig came into his own at about 27, so he still has lots to learn and lots to develop.”
Holtby is taking a similar approach. Earlier this season, 22-year-old Philipp Grubauer came up from the minors because of an injury, played well and, for a stretch, became the go-to goalie. That prompted gripes from Michal Neuvirth, who believed he was a No. 1 goalie but instead found himself without a chair.
Grubauer struggled and was sent down. Neuvirth got traded, the key in the deal that landed Halak from Buffalo. Holtby, throughout, said nothing.
“When you bring a guy in, you want to see him, want to see how he does,” Holtby said. “That stuff is completely out of my control. I don’t put too much thought into it.”
The thinking, for now, is left to Oates. For his part, the coach said he turned back to Halak for Tuesday night’s game at Pittsburgh in part because Halak had faced just 20 shots in a taut 3-2 loss Monday night in Washington.
Over the final 15 games of the season, this will be part of Oates’s daily conundrum. Last season, the Caps finished on a 15-2-2 tear to squeeze into the playoffs; this year, they sit sixth in the Metropolitan Division, 11th in the 16-team Eastern Conference, in need of something similar.
“Olie and I talk about it,” Oates said, referring to Kolzig, the longtime Capitals netminder who is now the team’s goalie coach. “I guess it’s a feel.”
Do not confuse “feel” with “feelings.” There is no room for the latter. As Halak said Thursday: “Whoever’s in the net, we are here for one reason and one reason only — to try to get in to the playoffs.”
For the past few seasons, the Capitals have been able to boast about the goaltending depth that has allowed them to trade Semyon Varlamov (the current starter in Colorado) and now Neuvirth, leaving Holtby and Grubauer to battle it out to become a true year-in, year-out No. 1, something the franchise has lacked since Kolzig’s best days. It’s worth pointing out, too, that some in the organization believe Grubauer, not Holtby, has the better long-term future.
So add that to the list of things Holtby must ignore as he tries to become the no-questions-asked, big-game choice.
“That’s the goal,” Holtby said. “I feel like I’m capable of it. But at the same time, I try not to think about things that way. I try to think that I’m going to play as many games as possible. I want to keep working and earn those games. If I don’t get them, it’s on myself. I haven’t earned them.”
When practice was over Thursday, a small throng of fans waited by the gate that separates the public area from the entrance to the Capitals’ locker room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Long after practice had ended, Holtby emerged. He signed his name on cards and caps and took as many pictures as the people requested. He might play Friday night. He might not. He might develop into a 60-games-a-year rock. He might not. They are just a few of the questions, in the short and long term, this franchise faces over the few harrowing weeks to come — and the seasons beyond.