Braden Holtby felt awkward, skating to the center of the Prudential Center ice to participate in a rare ceremonial puck drop between two goaltenders Saturday in New Jersey. He looked at the Devils’ Corey Schneider across from him and tried to follow his lead, unsure whether they should get into a faceoff setup or assume a goalie stance.
But Holtby also was honored to participate because of who was dropping the puck — legendary Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, who was in attendance for the reitrement of his jersey number and the unveiling of a statue in his likeness outside of the arena. Through a fortunate scheduling coincidence, Holtby got to share in the moment.
“We kind of forgot to take a picture,” Holtby said with a laugh after the Caps’ 3-2 win later that night. “It was bad.”
But Holtby and Brodeur are connected this season through more than just that moment: With 33 victories in 42 games played this season, Holtby is on pace to break the season wins record of 48 that Brodeur set in 2006-07.
Holtby’s chances of doing so will largely depend on how often he plays, given that the Capitals could conceivably clinch a playoff spot a month before the regular season ends. Capitals Coach Barry Trotz recently said backup Philipp Grubauer likely would get 25 percent of the starts after the all-star break, an equation that would leave Holtby with 23 or 24 games to get the 15 wins he needs to tie Brodeur’s mark.
Holtby has won 78.5 percent of his starts this season, a pace that would give him 18 more wins if he were to get 23 additional starts.
“It’s definitely something I look at, because really the only stat I care about is wins,” Holtby said. “It’s a stat you can share with the rest of your team. Everyone is part of it, and it’d be pretty cool because we have a great group here.”
A favorite for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, Holtby has a .929 save percentage and a 2.06 goals against average. Once their postseason position is secure, however, the Capitals could choose to rest the 26-year-old extensively in the hopes of keeping him fresh for the playoffs, especially considering how he played in a fatiguing 72 games last season.
But Trotz talked with Brodeur — who routinely played upward of 70 games per season throughout his career — about Holtby, a similar workhorse, at last summer’s NHL draft in Florida and walked away comforted about his goalie’s workload. Playing more, Brodeur said, helped him stay in rhythm, made the ups and downs of the season easier to manage.
“He likes work,” Trotz said of Holtby. “Someone asked me the other day, ‘Are you using Braden too much?’ I’m like, ‘He’s played one game in two weeks. No, I’m not.’ ”
The schedule won’t naturally offer Holtby as much time off as he’s had recently, when a blizzard postponed two games and the all-star break followed. The Capitals don’t have a respite of longer than two days for the rest of the season, and assuming Grubauer plays in the second game of every back-to-back set left, that’s five starts. Washington has 10 games before it plays two games in two nights on March 1 and 2, so it’s possible Grubauer will start a game before then as well.
But if last weekend was any indication, resting Holtby isn’t a forgone conclusion. Ahead of the New York Rangers in the Metropolitan Division by 17 points with a game in hand, the Capitals nonetheless started Holtby in their back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday.
Brodeur played at least 70 games in a season 12 times in his career, including two Stanley Cup-winning seasons in 1999-00 and 2002-03, when he was older than Holtby is now.
“You probably have a better risk of getting hurt in practices than you do in a game,” Brodeur said. “You need to be sharp. It’s like a reliever. Nobody says to [Mariano] Rivera not to go out and get your saves at the end of the year because you need to get ready for the playoffs. He wants to stay in that rhythm.
“Definitely you have to be smart about it. Your workload in practices is where you need to understand. He’s still young . . . but the thing is, I managed my time in practice better than probably other guys did. That’s why I was able to play for so long and that many games.”
Holtby said he grew up watching in particular Brodeur, Patrick Roy and Marty Turco, and as he got older and more invested in goaltending, he read Brodeur’s book. He admired Brodeur’s mental strength and stamina, marveling at his career statistics.
Now, Brodeur is a fan of Holtby’s, too.
“He reminds me of me a lot,” Brodeur said. “Not the way he plays or whatever, but the way he puts himself out there. He’s not scared. He just wants to play. I’m sure he’s playing through tons of injuries. He’s a warrior out there; he just looks like that. I don’t know him, and I don’t know if he does or not, but he’s having a great year, and it’s not just this year. Last year, he was coming on. He’s going to be good for a long time for them.”