The morning after Braden Holtby was yanked out of net for the first time all season, he and Washington Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn tried a different approach in practice. They talked more, breaking down why Holtby had uncharacteristically allowed three goals on eight shots against Toronto the previous night.
“He’s a very cerebral guy and a very cerebral goalie,” Korn said. “Those are great assets — until they get in the way.”
That Jan. 3 game against the Maple Leafs — which the Capitals eventually won in overtime with Philipp Grubauer in net — was what Korn calls a “red letter day” in the season. Holtby said it was an “off night” for him, and he hasn’t had once since. He is undefeated in the past five games with a 0.60 goals against average and a .978 save percentage. Three of those games were shutouts, and he hasn’t allowed an even-strength goal since that first period against the Maple Leafs.
Overthinking had been hurting Holtby, but mental fortitude — the ability to quickly move past a poor performance, make adjustments and improve — has always been his strength. He has helped backstop the Capitals to an eight-game winning streak.
“I didn’t feel comfortable in certain situations,” Holtby said. “I kind of took it to my practice habits a bit. I almost simplified instead of trying to stop everything at full speed because you don’t get scoring chances in games like you do in practice, and I was almost creating bad habits for myself, trying too hard. So it was just simplifying, making myself feel more comfortable in situations in the game.”
That it’s taken half a season for Holtby’s game to round back into top form isn’t so surprising considering the circumstances. Holtby tied an NHL record with 48 wins last season, winning the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, but it was later revealed he suffered an undisclosed injury at the end of the Capitals’ first-round playoff series with Philadelphia. He played through it for the rest of the postseason, but it required some rehab during the summer, which also included training for the World Cup of Hockey.
When the Capitals opened training camp, Holtby was still with Team Canada but inactive most nights as the third goaltender. When he returned to Washington, he was behind on his conditioning and rusty from so much time on the bench. He quickly got to work but was still playing catch-up for the remainder of the preseason.
In the pivotal game against Toronto, he started the second period on the bench despite the Capitals being down just one goal. The first goal he had allowed was on the power play, when Nazem Kadri knocked in a rebound. Holtby’s body was twisted away from Kadri, a product of Holtby getting ahead of himself and expecting the puck to go somewhere it ultimately didn’t.
“When you overplay something that you know it’s going to happen, but it doesn’t happen, you don’t look so good,” Korn said.
“He’s human, as much as we don’t want him to be,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “We’d rather he be supernatural. . . . Some guys are hanging onto things a little longer. He’s crushing George Ezra [music] or hanging out on the plane with me or hanging out afterward, not even worried about it. He’s really good at doing that, really good at parking it and moving on.”
Since the start of last season, Holtby is undefeated in the next game after he is pulled. Since the Toronto game, Holtby has been the epitome of calm and comfortable in net. The best saves are the ones that look easy. The highlight-reel ones are often when a goaltender desperately flings his glove up to catch the puck or dives to stop it with his stick just before it crosses the goal line, but those are the saves that are often the product of a goaltender being out of position and forced to scramble.
Against the Penguins on Wednesday night, forward Justin Williams marveled to T.J. Oshie on the bench that Holtby looked “in the zone,” like nothing would get by him as he played two-plus periods of shutout hockey.
“Coincidentally, they scored two goals right after that, so it might have been my fault,” Williams said. “He looks big out there. It doesn’t seem like there are any holes in him. He’s controlling rebounds. He’s just composed. I’m certainly not a goalie critic, so if I can see that, I’m sure the goaltending coaches and him are happy with the way he’s going as well.”
What does a goalie critic see?
“He plays it really, really simple,” Grubauer said. “He reads the play really, really well, and I think reading it helps him to adjust to plays, and that’s why it looks so simple to him. It seems like the pucks are just hitting him. He doesn’t react too much.
“He’s just reading the plays really good, and that’s what a goalie is supposed to do. Sometimes it becomes a little bit easier and sometimes it’s a little bit harder. But watching him day in and day out, it’s smooth.”