Braden Holtby will be between the pipes for the Caps at Scotiabank Arena, just as he was in Sunday’s crushing, 2-1 overtime loss, just as he has been to start 94 of the Caps’ 97 playoff games dating from 2012, when he was all of 22. At a position that can determine a franchise’s postseason fate, Holtby has been a constant, an indisputable part of Washington’s core.
There may be just 60 more minutes in which that’s true.
“I have the utmost trust and confidence that [Game 4] will be his best game,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said.
If so, maybe this era will be extended. But whenever the season ends, tip your cap to Holtby as he moseys off the ice — and into the unknown.
Holtby, you may remember, is due to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. You may also remember that during the pre-pandemic days, he had lost his hold as the starting goaltender to his presumed replacement, 23-year-old rookie Ilya Samsonov. Holtby was an easy choice to start the series against the Islanders only because Samsonov suffered an injury during the NHL’s shutdown.
The combination of a young heir already in place, the limitations of the salary cap and the market for a 30-year-old goalie who has won both a Vezina Trophy and a Stanley Cup — even after a walk year that was statistically the worst of his career — means there is almost no way Holtby can return. So think of this as an appreciation, even if the Caps force another game and there’s more to appreciate later in the week.
“He’s a winner down to the core,” teammate Lars Eller said Monday.
To truly appreciate what Holtby has meant to the Capitals, it helps to understand how unsteady they were in net when Alex Ovechkin’s teams began reaching the postseason. Their initial, frantic push to the playoffs in 2008 required a midseason trade for Cristobal Huet, who forced franchise stalwart Olaf Kolzig from the net. It was all unsettling and offered no solution for the future.
From there, the Caps had a revolving door. Jose Theodore opened the 2009 playoffs as the starter, only to be yanked by then-coach Bruce Boudreau for up-and-coming Semyon Varlamov in Game 2 of the first round — the same Varlamov who is helping stymie the Caps for the Islanders this year. In 2010, Theodore opened the first round as the starter and again lost his job to Varlamov. In 2011, it was Michal Neuvirth’s turn.
Finally, in 2012 — with Dale Hunter having replaced Boudreau midway through the season — the net became Holtby’s. He entered those playoffs with only 18 NHL starts. He started all 14 games for the Caps that spring. Instantly, he was the present and the future.
“It’s been, obviously, a great thing to watch,” said Reirden, who was an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins when Holtby became the Caps’ starter and has spent the past six seasons with him. “I watched it from the opposite bench and saw his development as a goalie, and getting to know him — the competitive side of him, the detailed side of him, the preparation that he goes through to give himself a chance to be an outstanding goaltender in this league — we’ve seen that.”
Holtby’s quirks — whacking the posts with his stick at the end of a period, refocusing by squirting water into the air and following it with his eyes — long ago became accepted pieces of the landscape here, and that’s in part because all he ever did was get back up off the ice and try again. That was true when he started the 2018 playoffs on the bench in favor of Philipp Grubauer, only to be named the starter in Game 3 of the first round, make what will forever be known as “The Save” in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals and eventually win the whole darn thing.
Along with the memories, Holtby has piled up the numbers at the most meaningful times. Since 2012-13, no goalie has played more regular season games (447) or posted more wins (268) than Washington’s No. 70.
Tuesday will be his 96th career playoff appearance, breaking a tie with New York Rangers legend Henrik Lundqvist for most since 2012. Since Holtby made his first playoff start, among goalies with at least 30 appearances, only the Boston Bruins’ Tuukka Rask and the Ottawa Senators’ Craig Anderson have posted better postseason save percentages than Holtby’s .927, and only the Los Angeles Kings’ Jonathan Quick can better his 2.13 goals against average. Fifty-six times in the playoffs, he has allowed two or fewer goals.
So he has been both steady and a star, and his departure will represent a step further away from that magical run to the Cup. Ovechkin’s contract runs out after next season, and there is no way the captain and the team won’t figure out a way to make sure he finishes his career where he started. Nicklas Backstrom is already assured of that, signed through 2024-25 — as is Evgeny Kuznetsov, as is T.J. Oshie. Defenseman John Carlson’s deal runs through 2025-26.
Yes, maybe Oshie — and his contract — is gobbled up in next year’s expansion draft. But as it stands now, Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, Kuznetsov, Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Tom Wilson will cost the Caps more than $50 million annually through 2022-23 — a huge chunk of the $81.5 million salary cap for next season spent on seven players. This is a club that has to get cheap where it can, and right now, Samsonov — who is expected to be healthy whenever the 2020-21 season begins — affords them that opportunity.
One last thing on Holtby: He grew up here, had his kids here, ingratiated himself here. When no one asked him to, he and his wife, Brandi, made the annual Capital Pride Parade in support of LGBTQ rights part of their spring routine. When the pandemic struck, the Holtbys donated 25,000 meals through the Capital Area Food Bank. When George Floyd was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police and unrest percolated across the country, Holtby felt the need to address the matter publicly.
“Where do we go from here?” he wrote in an impassioned essay posted to Twitter, complete with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. “As a person who definitely falls into the white privileged category, I know I will truly never know what it’s like to walk in a black man’s shoes. But I know I have arms, and ears, and a voice to walk beside and listen to every word of anguish and give my strength to every black man, woman or child until their shoes weigh the same as mine.”
Braden Holtby’s final game as a Washington Capital could be Tuesday night. It could be Thursday. If there’s some sort of a comeback, maybe it won’t be till next month.
Whenever he leaves, though, remember that he not only provided the Caps stability at a position where they badly needed it and won a Cup to boot. Remember that — before all the turmoil of 2020 — he constantly reminded us that athletes have voices, and those voices can matter.
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