Of all the goaltending records owned by Martin Brodeur — and there are many — the one for most wins in a season was among the hardest to chase. It felt, he said, like a year-long “sprint.” There were years when he got close, notching 42 or 43 wins, and then — Brodeur made the sound of a car screeching to a halt.
As games grew more critical late in the season, they also grew closer and harder to win. Or the opposite was true, the outcome the same: Because the New Jersey Devils were in good position for the postseason, Brodeur wasn’t playing as much down the stretch. Maybe what made this record so hard to capture was that it wasn’t entirely in Brodeur’s control. He needed help from his teammates.
“For me to have the most wins, that means I played on a great organization,” Brodeur said. “You ain’t getting the most wins ever if you’re playing on a last-position team. It just ain’t happening. I hate to break the news to anyone who thinks that they’re going to get it. It’s all about playing on good teams and winning.”
Braden Holtby read Brodeur’s book when he was younger, would gawk at Brodeur’s stats in goaltender magazines. The Washington Capitals goalie now is just two wins from matching the single-season wins record set by Brodeur during the 2006-07 season, when he won 48 of his 78 starts with the Devils.
Holtby will likely get just four more starts to break or tie that record. He’s unashamed to admit he wants it, too, because, as Brodeur noted, it would mean not simply individual success but team success.
“It obviously wasn’t a goal to start the year, but as time went on, it’d be a cool thing as a team to accomplish,” Holtby said recently. “It’s a hard thing to do. Right now, we’re just trying to sharpen our game as best we can. If we play our game the rest of the way, we should have a chance at breaking it as a team, but it’s not our main goal. We’re just trying to sharpen up.”
What will now likely be a photo finish seemed a forgone conclusion earlier in the season. Holtby had a stretch of 23 games from November to mid-January without a regulation loss, losing only twice overall in that span. He was on a pace not only to pass Brodeur for most wins in a season, but to do so by five games.
But as Washington slowed down slightly, so did Holtby. His save percentage and goals-against average have declined after the all-star break, a combination of the team not playing as well in front of him and Holtby struggling to find a rhythm with an irregular practice schedule later in the season.
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said it was no different than a skater on a hot streak, that the puck stopped looking like a beach ball. But while Holtby wasn’t stealing games for Washington as often during the second half of the season, Trotz praised him for still making the saves that were needed for the Capitals to win most nights.
Holtby has repeatedly referred to setting the wins record as a potential team accomplishment, and the Capitals — who already have clinched the Presidents’ Trophy — want this for the goaltender they lean on so often. Through 62 starts, Holtby is tied for fourth all-time in single-season wins (46), and he’s the only one to reach that mark while starting fewer than 73 games.
“It matters to me because I’d heard about it recently and understand how crazy of a record that is,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “There’s a few that have been around the league that I’m just like, ‘That’s never going to get touched.’ Probably a lot of people thought this was one that would never even come close. To me, I think Holts would tell you that it’s not necessarily just a goaltender record. It’s kind of a thing for all of us, and we want to give him what he deserves. He’s played so good for us this season that we want his name to go up in history and have that as his honor. But it’s a little feather in our cap as well.”
Since a 2-1 shootout win at Anaheim on March 7, in which Holtby saved 27 of the 28 shots he faced, he’s started to flash some of his earlier form. In his past nine starts, dating to that win, Holtby has a .933 save percentage and a 1.77 goals-against average.
Where he’ll need more help from his teammates is in games like Wednesday night’s in Philadelphia, when Holtby had one of his strongest showings with 33 saves and just one goal allowed in a 2-1 shootout loss. After the game, Alex Ovechkin said the loss hurt in part because the Capitals wanted a win for Holtby. Nicklas Backstrom has said that if Holtby does get the wins record, he should keep all of the credit.
“Maybe he doesn’t think about it that much right now, but one day when he retires, he’s going to look back at that and probably feel good about it, so I really hope he gets it,” Backstrom said. “All of the guys in the locker room are cheering for him and want him to get it, too.”
Now an assistant general manager for the St. Louis Blues, Brodeur was at Verizon Center for a recent matchup between the two teams. It was the second game of a back-to-back, so Holtby had a rare night off. Brodeur said he hasn’t monitored Holtby’s every start, but he laughed about how with each win Holtby notches now, his own name is brought up, the two intertwined through this season.
They’ll likely be in the same arena one more time this year, when Holtby is projected to make his last start of the season in St. Louis — possibly with Brodeur’s record on the line.
“It’s nice for him, and I think it’s a great goal of his,” Brodeur said. “It’s funny. As goalies, you always hope that people are kind of behind you when you’re going for these records, not that you’re doing it personally, but you do it as a team. If you win, it’s not selfish. You win, everybody’s happy.”