SUNRISE, Fla. — They watch him deflate opposing crowds, snare whizzing pucks from the air and stretch his body from post to post, anything to keep the net behind his back untouched.
They watch him every night, so the Washington Capitals know how it goes. Braden Holtby, far more often than not, will give them a chance to win the game. Holtby has been an unmovable anchor of the Capitals’ defense for five-plus seasons now. But ask his teammates what specifically is impressive about this year, and they struggle to find a concrete answer.
“Well …” said defenseman John Carlson before taking a five-second pause.
“I mean …” started defenseman Matt Niskanen, and he paused for seven seconds.
A smile from Carlson. A head scratch from Niskanen, and then a small smile, too.
“Well, he’s just so consistent,” said Carlson, looking up to indicate that was his final answer.
“I mean, he’s really, really good,” Niskanen decided on. “That’s just Braden.”
Being consistently really, really good will lead to a lot of victories, and Holtby is on pace for his fourth straight 40-win season. He is also on his way to his third straight All-Star Game; this weekend in Tampa, he’ll play for the Metropolitan Division team behind forward Alex Ovechkin and under Coach Barry Trotz. But while Holtby’s year — 25 wins in 36 starts, a 2.66 goals against average, a .917 save percentage — feels like more of the same, the 28-year-old admits this season feels decidedly different.
The Capitals, after some roster overhaul this summer, are giving up more shots and more high-grade scoring chances than in recent years. Holtby, in turn, is on pace for his highest goals against average since the 2013-14 season. His save percentage is also set to be his lowest since that year, in which he made 45 starts before playing in 63 or more games in every season since. But his year has still been impressive by many measures, as the Capitals sit atop the Metropolitan Division and have a six-point cushion on the next closest teams. Given the offseason changes, Holtby has had to recalibrate how closely he scrutinizes his performance.
“Obviously we have a different team,” Holtby said Thursday before the Capitals’ 4-2 win at the Florida Panthers. “It’s been a challenge mentally just to evaluate games a little different when you’re giving up a lot more chances, shots, that type of thing. More opportunity to make mistakes, I guess. It’s been an adjustment that way, to be critical in the right areas of yourself, but not too down when we’re giving up a goal more a game or whatever.
“That’s been the tougher part. But in saying that, there’s been areas where the more work, the more opportunity to find trends and get better that way.”
It was clear going into last summer that the Capitals would not look the same in the 2017-18 season. On the blue line, the team had to part ways with veterans Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner in free agency, and it lost young, speedy Nate Schmidt to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. That led to prominent roles for a pair of rookies, Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey. Djoos started the year in the NHL and has played in 40 games, mostly paired with Carlson. Bowey joined the team from the American Hockey League after an early-season injury to Niskanen, and has since become a mainstay next to Brooks Orpik while playing 41 games.
That, coupled with a Capitals offense that has more shifting parts than last season and sometimes struggles with puck possession, has led to more scoring chances for the opposition. The Capitals gave up just 27.8 shots on goal per game last year, the fourth-lowest rate in the NHL. This season, they are tied for 16th in the league while giving up 32.0 shots on goal per contest. It is also the first time in Trotz’s four-year tenure that the Capitals are, on average, taking fewer than 50 percent of the even-strength shot attempts.
That all gives Holtby a weightier workload, and his numbers reflect a sustained success rate.
“We have a lot of new pieces there, so it wasn’t going to be as tight as it had been in the past in terms of some of the more veteran defensemen back there,” Trotz said of how this season has been different for Holtby. “Goalies are erasers, and I think they have the mind-set that, ‘We know our team is not going to be perfect in front of us and, if I do make a mistake, I can correct those.’ ”
So much of Holtby’s consistency is centered on routine and preparation — repeating the same habits in an effort to find the right rhythm whenever he is between the pipes. That has been tough in recent weeks: The Capitals will have played just four games in 18 days when they come back from the all-star break, and they will have had two five-day layoffs in that span. Holtby gave up four goals in the first game back after the previous break, the last one a game-winner in three-on-three overtime, and admitted it was difficult to be in form.
Now he will play during this break, if facing down numerous breakaways and odd-man rushes in a three-on-three tournament can be considered a break. Holtby said there aren’t enough shots to throw him off during the All-Star Game’s format, which features little defense. He added that the shots he faces in Tampa also will not be substantial enough to help him maintain any sort of rhythm going into the stretch run of the season. It just is what it is.
“We’ll practice when we get back — that will be when I get back into things,” Holtby said. “It’s really another full break, but that’s just what the circumstances are.”
No update on Kuznetsov: The Capitals did not provide an update on center Evgeny Kuznetsov on Friday after the center left Thursday night’s game in the third period with a lower body injury and did not return.
Kuznetsov was seen walking after the game and remained with his family in Florida, the team said. The Capitals said they will update his status when they return to practice following the all-star break.
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