Perhaps the best thing for Braden Holtby was to sit out back on Oct. 12, when the Capitals hosted the Colorado Avalanche.
Through the first four games he had allowed 13 goals on 102 shots, been pulled from one start and let in at least two fluky, uncharacteristic goals. Goaltending coach Olie Kolzig wasn’t overly concerned, knowing that Holtby was still working on incorporating adjustments to his game and that the .872 save percentage and 4.04 goals-against average weren’t reflective of his overall play. But Kolzig believes that watching for a night helped the 24-year-old.
In five starts since he backed up against Colorado, Holtby’s poise has appeared to grow with every outing. He has stopped 172 of 182 shots in that span for a .945 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average with performances that have helped establish composure for the team as a whole.
“He’s just continued to build momentum and his confidence is sky high,” Kolzig said Saturday morning. “When he gets that way it has a real calming effect on the team. They realize they can make a mistake and it’s not necessarily going to end up in the back of the net, it frees up the guys in front to be a little more aggressive in the offense and as a result we’ve scored a few goals the last couple games.”
Holtby’s recent surge is why he will receive a sixth consecutive start Saturday night against the Flames. Kolzig explained that the Capitals initially planned to play Michal Neuvirth in Calgary, but with Holtby and the team on a three-game winning streak, they opted not to disrupt that momentum.
While Holtby has had slow starts for two consecutive years, the circumstances this season were different from last. In the lockout shortened campaign, things were in “shambles” the goaltender said and he was simply trying to do too much. This time around it was more a matter of fully integrating new approaches to his game and shaking off a couple odd plays.
One of the biggest changes Kolzig has made to the Capitals’ goaltending philosophy since taking over as coach is to have netminders not square up to the puck when handling plays from below the hash marks to the goal line. They’re also looking for the goaltenders to be able to read situations and know, for example, if there’s a less threatening odd man rush that they can sit back rather than commit completely to a certain form of coverage.
For Holtby, who has always been a very aggressive goaltender, that adjustment has taken some time. Rather than coming out to cut down a shooter’s angle in certain situations, he’s playing flatter along the goal line. It allows him to react to sudden changes of direction and be in better position to handle those types of plays.
“The sharp angle shots you’re not as committed to so that if the puck keeps moving around then you’re not using so much energy, so you’re easier to get squared up to certain shots,” Holtby said. That was “something we’d been looking at last year. We look for tendencies, patterns and that’s one thing that we thought we could do better.”
It’s smart and selective aggressiveness but Kolzig admits it comes with the tradeoff of giving up an occasional goal that might have simply hit a goaltender in the past when they were out to challenge a shot.
“We’re willing to sacrifice those for those East-West plays that goalies really seem to get beat on a lot. I think it’s really going to benefit him more playing this way,” Kolzig said, adding that it creates more potential to carry over positive energy to the team. “It’s amazing when goalies make saves like that…. Those things energize the guys, the bench. Big saves always do that. By him playing this way we’re giving him an opportunity to make those saves on a more frequent basis.”
In each of the past five games, Holtby has seen no less than 30 shots in any single game. He likes to see more shots so that he can be consistently involved in the game, but unlike last year when he handled significant workloads during Washington’s playoff push not all these attempts are coming from the perimeter.
“The last few games with that many shots, I think as a group we know we’re giving up too many chances,” Holtby said. “Got lucky a few times especially in Edmonton and we still gave up four [goals] in Winnipeg. It’s not exactly where they’re all outside like they were last year during that stretch, we did a very good job of keeping those shots to a minimum and from the outside. Getting better at it this year but we know we have to clean it up.”
Against the Jets, it was Holtby’s 43-save performance that gave the Capitals an opportunity to capture a 5-4 shootout win but the goaltender had to speak up in the second intermission and demand more of his teammates en route to that victory. They’re working to rise and match his play, so he won’t have to tell them again.
“We’ve given up a few breakaways here and there and when your goalie can bail you out it’s huge,” Troy Brouwer said. “We’re trying to clean up that aspect of our game. When your goalie’s there and he’s making those saves, keeping you in games, giving you a chance — we’ve got to help him out and do our part to make his job easier.”