(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

As the Capitals accumulated a deep pool of goaltending talent over the past few years, the question of which young prospect would lead the team for years going forward remained. After this playoff run and the breakout performance of Braden Holtby, though, they might have their answer.

Holtby stepped into the Capitals’ starting role this spring by necessity when injuries befell Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. Long before Game 7 against the Rangers, Holtby was handling himself as a veteran rather than a 22-year-old rookie. He emerged as one of the unexpected stars of the postseason as he started each of Washington’s 14 games, stopping 429 of the 459 shots he faced through two rounds for a .935 save percentage and 1.95 goals against average.

While nothing ever guarantees a certain role in the lineup or on the depth chart next season, the Saskatchewan native has certainly made a case for a sizable NHL workload next season.

“Braden’s certainly helped his cause and put his name on the map and really helped himself,” veteran winger Mike Knuble said. “I think we’re all very proud of the way he’s played. He’s juggling a lot coming in here and to be able to just play as steady and give us a chance to win every night, he did that. You can’t say more about a guy who comes in and does that.”

Holtby characterized both of the shots that beat him in Game 7, by Brad Richards and Michael Del Zotto, as “good goals.” He didn’t see the first and the second happened as the result of a bad line change. It wasn’t those tallies that disappointed Holtby the most, rather that the Capitals missed an opportunity to accomplish something special.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing,” Holtby said Saturday night. “We really did believe in here that we had the team to do it all and to look at it we gave ourselves a great chance. It’s a tough loss especially, but what we can take out of it is that New York is a very good team and we didn’t leave anything on the table.”

Coach Dale Hunter, who showed confidence in Holtby when the prospect was recalled in late March and started him in high-pressure situations then as the Capitals worked their way back into the playoffs, praised his young nemtinder once more following the season-ending loss.

“He’s played well -- under extreme pressure,” Hunter said of Holtby. “He had to go up against [Boston’s Tim] Thomas, you know, Stanley Cup winner and now [New York’s Henrik] Lundqvist, who could be MVP of the league….He battled tooth-and-nail even with them. Proud of him.”

More on the Capitals:
Caps lose a series, but gain an indentity
Lundqvist finally thwarts Capitals
Caps stopped short by Rangers in Game 7

View Photo Gallery: New York eliminates the Capitals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, 2-1.