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Despite little work at World Cup, Braden Holtby looking sharp in early preseason action

Braden Holtby pokes the puck away from Blues center Landon Ferraro during their exhibition game Monday night. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Because the Capitals’ workhorse goaltender was largely idle for the past month at the World Cup of Hockey, there was some concern over how he’d rebound. Braden Holtby,  Team Canada’s No. 3 goaltender, did not play in the tournament and split practice time with Corey Crawford.

Washington’s Philipp Grubauer was in a similar position; the No. 2 netminder for Team Europe also did not play.

“One of my fears was that in a tournament like this, if you’re not playing, you can very easily lose your conditioning, lose your sharpness or not get sharp,” goaltending coach Mitch Korn said at the start of training camp. “That’s why we talk a lot about how hard it is for a backup goalie in the National Hockey League not to play for two weeks, three weeks, whatever it is, and then he’s got to go in and he’s got to get it done. It’s not easy.

“Holts has not been used to that, and now he’s been watching for quite some time. Three goalies in practice lends itself to less pucks, less shots, and not playing is not playing. I’m not sure he went there with a great foundation — nobody had a great foundation when they went there. It’s training camp time, and they have to play this tournament. So, he’s probably chomping at the bit because that’s in his DNA.”

Holtby was indeed eager to see game action when he returned to Washington, playing a full exhibition game on Saturday and then starting again on Monday night against the St. Louis Blues. But any concerns of rust have been tabled by two strong outings. Playing the full game on Saturday against the Islanders, Holtby saved 24 of 25 shots against, and in half a game on Monday, he again allowed just one goal, stopping 13 of 14 shots against.

Grubauer played the second half Monday and pitched a shutout, stopping all seven shots he faced through the overtime period, and his saves in the shootout delivered the 2-1 win.

“I think he’s played quite well considering he hasn’t had the … quantity of shots that he’s normally getting,” Coach Barry Trotz said of Holtby. “And also the game reps that he usually gets with traffic and the concentration over long periods of time. I thought both our goalies looked sharp, and that’s great for us.”

Holtby played in 66 games last season, tying an NHL record with 48 wins, and he won the Vezina Trophy for his impressive season. After Monday night’s game, he was typically critical of himself.

“There’s been plays where I haven’t been that sharp, they just haven’t gone in the net,” he said. “Still things I’m trying to work on. I’m just trying to get back in the swing of things. Guys have been playing really well, especially defensively. It makes it easier for us to get into it.”

He said being in a shorthanded situation has been one thing that’s “coming pretty naturally,” as he got a lot of work on that in Team Canada practices against some of the world’s top shooters. With three goaltenders left on the training camp roster, Holtby is expected to continue seeing time in Washington’s last three exhibition games.

“I’d like to play them all,” he said. “But obviously we both have to get ready for the season ahead, and that’s going to be the goal. And the coaches will figure out the best way to do that.”

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