Trotz’s decision didn’t come as a surprise — Grubauer had comfortably outplayed Holtby over the second half of the season — but it was still a startling fall for the goaltender who had won the Vezina Trophy in 2016, was a finalist for the award again the next season and then was named an All Star this year.
“I think there’s no secret that he’s not happy that he didn’t start,” forward Brett Connolly said of Holtby.
Goaltenders are often considered the weirdos in NHL locker rooms — who actually wants to get peppered with whizzing pucks for a living? — and mental fortitude at the position can be just as important as physical ability. Along with losing his starting job, Holtby could have lost his confidence, and that would have lost the Capitals their first-round series when Trotz put Holtby back in the starting role with Washington in a two-games-to-none hole to Columbus.
But Holtby didn’t doubt himself, and over the next four starts he was the Capitals’ best player with a .935 save percentage and a 1.92 goals against average. Washington stormed back in the series with four straight wins to advance to the second round of the playoffs. Holtby’s next test is the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the team that’s beaten him the past two postseasons. Perhaps he’s never been more prepared for the challenge.
“There are times when I just put too much pressure on myself to be perfect, and that never works,” Holtby said. “That’s just one of those things that you look back on and you realize those little adjustments mentally and sometimes physically can make you better. That’s why adversity and those type of things, you can use them in a positive way.”
Of all the things that seemingly could go wrong for the Capitals, goaltending was never believed to be one of them entering the season. Salary cap constraints and the Las Vegas expansion draft cost them three blueliners. The forward corps also took a hit with the loss of two top-six wingers. Washington was forced to lean on younger, cheaper players throughout the lineup, but the tandem in net was expected to be a strength with both Holtby and Grubauer back after collectively posting the lowest goals against average in the league last season.
But the changes in the rest of the lineup meant change in the way the team played in front of Holtby. Washington went from defensively structured, largely allowing shots from the outside and efficiently moving the puck out of its own end, to chaotic with Holtby under siege more often and forced to stop more attempts from point-blank range.
“There’s probably too much going on the goalie, whether it’s positive or negative, just because he’s the last guy back there,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “There were parts of the season where we didn’t play very well in front of him, and a lot of his numbers were reflective of that and weren’t really reflective of the way he was playing. It was more the quality of chances we were giving up.”
He weathered it for the first half of the season, keeping the Capitals afloat through their growing pains, but his play declined in the second half. He was 2-5-2 in February with an .873 save percentage and 4.62 goals against average. The low point came on the team’s California trip in March. When Holtby allowed three goals on nine shots in Anaheim, he was yanked early for a third time in his past six starts. Grubauer was in net for the next four games, what Trotz called a “reset” period for Holtby to work through his struggles. There was a conversation then, too, Trotz telling Holtby to return to the foundations that had made him the athletic, poised goaltender the coach had counted on for the past four years.
Why didn’t Holtby doubt himself then, during the worst stretch of his career?
“It never crossed my mind,” Holtby said. “I think a lot of it is you just break it down — some circumstantial and some things you could do better. It was not as bad as everyone thought that it was, and it’s the same thing as things are never as good as people think they are, too. It was just a little adjustment here and there. That’s the way hockey goes sometimes. Sometimes those pucks go the right way and sometimes they go the wrong way. We just kept focusing on getting better, and that’s what we did.”
No doubts crept into Trotz’s mind either. When he told Holtby he would not be starting Game 1 of a playoff series for the first time since 2011, he never feared for the goaltender’s confidence or feelings. He instead saw a fire that convinced him Holtby would be better when the Capitals needed him again.
“If there’s no relationship, then I don’t know how he takes it, but I think there’s a relationship between myself and Braden and what he’s done for us,” Trotz said. “He’s a team guy, so I wasn’t worried about any issue.”