Braden Holtby hadn't played in a game that gave him the opportunity to play the puck too much since he returned from a knee injury he suffered in late February while playing with Hershey, until Friday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Washington's eventual 2-1 win over the Hurricanes gave Holtby plenty of chances to retrieve the puck and help send the play back up ice but there were also a few close calls, because while the 21-year-old goaltender has no doubts about his ability to serve as an extra puck-handler in his team's zone he knows he doesn't have too much experience doing so in the NHL.
Coach Bruce Boudreau commented after the contest that he thought Holtby might have been getting "a little too brave" but don't count him among those who would prefer a goaltender remains in their crease and never ventures out to play the puck.
"Being here I've had to get used to it, but on the same token if you've got a goaltender that can play the puck well, what an added bonus," Boudreau said. "That forces teams to not be able to dump pucks in. When [Rick] DiPietro was at his best there was one game we played them we only had 13 shots on goal because every time we shot it in he got it out - and on the tape. It's a real big help if you can get a goalie that can play the puck."
Holtby understands that sometimes he needs to prove to a coach that he's capable of weighing the risk against the reward whenever he comes out to play the puck. When he arrived in Hershey, it took a little bit of time for Bears Coach Mark French to adjust to the idea of Holtby so freely and confidently looking to help with the play.
French "wasn't a big fan of me doing it for a while there, but once I kind of proved to him that I could it kind of made sense to him," Holtby said. "I think sometimes they're a little scared to jump out of the box because if you do get scored on that way it looks bad, but when you look at and all the shots it saves you it's a pretty big difference and injuries for defensemen it's huge."
Holtby said he's never encountered a defenseman who doesn't like him to play the puck because of that decreased risk of getting crunched against the boards when they go to retrieve the puck behind the goal line shift after shift.
Part of being a puck handling goaltender involves a rather high level of communication with defensemen and while Holtby is familiar with several of the Capitals' defensemen like Karl Alzner and John Carlson from their time in Hershey it hasn't been too tough to work with some of the newer faces either.
"Fortunately, especially with [Scott] Hannan and [Dennis] Wideman they're very vocal guys, willing to tell you what to do," Holtby said. "They're more than willing to help me figure out the best play in every situation and just try to get familiar with each other."
As for that trapezoid behind the net where he's not allowed to play the puck, well it's little surprise Holtby isn't a big fan.
"The thing's the worst thing ever invented in hockey. It drives me insane," Holtby said. "It drives the defensemen insane, they get ran all the time there...It's in the game, you have to deal with it and luckiliy I haven't gotten a penalty for touching the puck in there yet, knock on wood."