Capitals backup goalie Braden Holtby starts at the top

By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 10:52 PM

What a spot it was for Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, staring down a torrent of shots from reigning Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia late in the third period of a tie game. Throw in the uncertainty of how a 21-year-old rookie would manage those moments in his first NHL start, and the situation couldn't have been more pressure filled.

Except Holtby played it as if it were routine. Never mind the Flyers had come to Verizon Center with every intention of retaining their tenuous hold on first place in the East and were applying repeated pressure so close to the crease that Holtby barely had room to maneuver. So instead of advancing, he slid laterally, denying each bid and keeping the score deadlocked.

By the time the Capitals cleared the puck out of harm's way, Holtby had made 22 of his 23 saves, then was able to celebrate shortly after when defenseman Mike Green buried a slapshot in overtime for a 3-2 victory that elevated Washington to first in the conference.

"Players now, they don't want to show whether they are nervous," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I think [Holtby] was a little nervous. In the first two periods I thought he looked a little nervous, but once they started getting some shots in the third period, I thought he made a great, game-saving save there in that flurry, moving from side to side, so I think he handled himself overall really well for his first complete game."

Holtby made his NHL debut on Friday night against Boston, entering with the game tied after starter Michal Neuvirth got pulled when he surrendered two quick goals in the third period. Holtby stopped all four shots he faced to log the win in his first appearance, and that experience went a long way in helping to quiet the potential nerves surrounding his first start.

The Flyers wasted no time trying to unsettle Holtby. Among the first to take a turn was left wing Scott Hartnell, when the agitator of the highest order snowed the untried goalie.

"He's from my same hometown," said Holtby, a fourth-round draft pick in 2008, "and I was kind of just like, 'Okay, we're actually in a game now. I'm not actually watching these guys on TV anymore.'"

Holtby did give up a goal to right wing Nikolay Zherdev on the fifth shot he faced, but Eric Fehr countered for the Capitals shortly before the end of the first period.

Left wing Ville Leino beat Holtby for the final time at 4 minutes 4 seconds of the second period. Shortly thereafter, Alexander Semin scored the equalizer, and Holtby braced for what would be a contentious third period during which he stopped all eight shots he faced.

"It's nice to get into a bit of a rivalry like that," Holtby said. "They work hard, and that's kind of the way I like to play, too. If they're crashing the net, it makes me get into the game a little bit more."

Holtby was 4-0-1 with a 1.97 goals against average in five games with the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears before being called up on Oct. 25 to replace Semyon Varlamov, who is out with a groin injury.

Games such as Sunday night's may make Washington's goaltending situation a bit more complicated - in a good way - after Holtby became the third straight Capitals netminder to start his career 2-0, joining Neuvirth and Varlamov.

"He's kind of thrown into the fire there, but he handled himself well," Green said. "He's composed, and I thought he played fantastic."

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