Last spring, Braden Holtby arrived in Washington as the third goaltender on the depth chart. Injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth thrust Holtby, then 22 and awaiting the birth of his son, Benjamin, into the role of starter in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Capitals never doubted the steely, ultra-competitive Saskatchewan native — and rightly so. Holtby took the NHL by storm with his play in series against the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers in 2012.
Thursday at Verizon Center, Holtby will guard Washington’s net not as a playoff rookie but as the team’s No. 1 goaltender after a 35-start regular season. It will mark the first time that the goaltender the Capitals turn to for the first start of the postseason is the same one who started the last game of the previous year’s playoffs since Olie Kolzig did so back in 1999-00 and 2000-01.
“All I need to do is focus on my game, what I need to do to be successful,” Holtby said. “Everything else that comes with the playoffs really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a difference at all. It’s knowing what I’m capable of doing on the ice and making sure I do it.”
While his consistency this season (23-12-1, 2.58 GAA, .920 save percentage) has been a source of stability for the Capitals, Holtby dismisses the notion that these playoffs are any different for him even with the additional NHL experience.
“That stuff doesn’t really matter. The games still have to be played. It doesn’t matter how many games you’ve before, it doesn’t make it any easier,” Holtby said. “There are things that you can gain from experience in terms of your play but when it comes down to it that stuff is thrown out the window. You just have to perform, you have to believe that we’re the better team and you go from there. You throw experience out the window and you just play.”
In last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal against the Rangers, Holtby allowed 15 goals on 211 shots for a .929 save percentage and 1.90 GAA. He’s 5-6-1 all time against New York in his career, including both playoff and regular season contests, with a 1.77 GAA and .935 save percentage.
While Holtby downplays the potential advantages of experience, his teammates know that while this spring is a different set of circumstances for the netminder they expect him to handle it with equal ease.
“Well he doesn’t have a baby that could be born any day. That’s one thing,” defenseman Karl Alzner quipped. “I would imagine he has a little more confidence than last year. He’s one of those guys, he’s so mature that he knows how to handle the pressure he knows how to get himself ready.
“Now it’s not necessarily everybody doubting him like they were last year and him having to prove himself,” Alzner added. “Now it’s him continuing to play the way we know he can play. Sometimes that’s harder, sometimes that’s easier but I don’t think he’s going to have much of a problem.”
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