Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby knew the old bus as “The Boneshaker” because when it rattled down the roads linking stops in the American Hockey League, pregame preparations were tested by every speed bump and pothole. The Boneshaker kills focus. It derails routine. Try snoozing on The Boneshaker. Not going to happen.
So Holtby learned to compartmentalize, reading books or listening to music while the Hershey Bears drove toward their next destination, sometimes the third city in as many days. Only once the two-hour warning hit before the puck dropped did he finally start thinking about stopping pucks.
“We play too many games to dwell on it all day,” Holtby said. “It’s a lot harder when your pregame nap is on The Boneshaker. That part’s hard, to get into a daily routine that way.”
This approach was why Holtby, grounded by ritual and relaxed in demeanor, always made himself available to reporters after morning skates, a rare practice among fellow netminders. It helped him tear through December and January, obliterating the Washington Capitals’ franchise record with 27 straight appearances and, with 21 consecutive starts, falling one short of that mark.
Now at the all-star break, Holtby is on pace to play 76 games this season, which would surpass Olie Kolzig’s franchise record by three. Throughout the streak, he was pelted with questions about stamina and whether the Capitals were running him into the ground. He always answered that he would play all 82 if he could because life was much more difficult in the minor leagues. Chartered planes and spaced-out schedules have nothing on three-in-threes and The Boneshaker.
“It’s draining because it’s not usually just three home games,” he said of his AHL days. “You go to Bridgeport on a Friday, back home Saturday, then Binghamton on Sunday. You’re on the bus the whole weekend, not exactly good food. It’s draining that way. You basically challenge your body, everything, as much as you possibly can to groom you for this.”
“This” was Holtby starting every game from Dec. 2 to Jan. 16, before the Capitals finally ended the remarkable stretch Saturday in Columbus. He anchored the team’s burst of 18 points in 19 games to close a once-massive gap between it and second place in the Metropolitan Division. The streak moved Holtby into consideration for (though not selection to) the All-Star Game and ensured that, before the season ends and he becomes a restricted free agent, the team at least will think long and hard about locking him into an extension.
For his teammates, witnessing Holtby’s endurance also made their bumps and bruises seem trivial. Defenseman John Carlson occasionally asked Holtby about the mental fortitude required to remain constantly alert for 60 minutes each night as the last line of defense — not to mention the pressure of playing 17 one-goal games as he did during the appearances streak, which began in mid-November. Holtby would simply shrug and deflect.
“So I don’t really know,” Carlson said. “I guess it’s a testament to him, what he’s done. . . . He’s a full-tilt guy. He puts everything into it, and it’s good for him that he’s seen the success that he deserves and that no one’s surprised about either.”
Least of all David Struch, Holtby’s former assistant coach with the Saskatoon Blades in the Western Hockey League, where Holtby spent three full seasons as a teenager before the Capitals drafted him 93rd overall in 2008. Struch recalled Holtby joining the club already mature and mentally polished, so the Blades had no qualms about throwing him into the grind.
“He’s that guy,” Struch said. “He’s a guy who can do it.”
This offseason, the Capitals took special care in naming Holtby their No. 1 goaltender, signing free agent Justin Peters as a non-threatening backup option. But especially during the team’s early-season struggles, when Holtby gave up 12 goals in three games, few could have imagined the success of his 21-game start streak, in which he went 14-3-4 with a 2.08 goals against average and a. 931 save percentage.
“We get to a point where all these guys are physical specimens, and physically I don’t think it’s hard for them,” goaltending coach Mitch Korn said. “But mentally is where the challenge is. And every game was a one-goal game almost. It’s one thing when you win a game 5-1 and you don’t have to be mentally acute when the game is in hand. I don’t think there are very many moments, in all those games, where the game was not in question. It’s a way more of a mental test.”
After 177 games with the Blades, many crammed into tight weekend windows, Holtby spent bits of four seasons hopping between Washington’s minor league affiliates and occasionally tasting life in the NHL. Now, with the most consistent stretch of his career over and hope for a new streak to begin once the Capitals return from the all-star break to face Columbus on Tuesday, he looked back on the bus rides and the three-in-threes and saw the groundwork laid for today.
“You kind of just find ways,” Holtby said. “That’s the reason you’re down there. If it was easy, you wouldn’t send anyone there. Everyone’s in the same situation, obviously. You don’t really dwell on it too much, but there’s days where you have absolutely zero energy and you have to find a way to get your mind into it at least. Some days they don’t go well, and you have to turn around quickly and get right back in it. It’s very draining mentally, but it makes you a lot stronger.”