It all started with the snowstorm, the January blizzard that caused a scheduling headache with the postponement of two games. It also cooled the Capitals, giving a dominant team just two games in two weeks. The all-star break immediately followed, even more rest, and after all of that the entire team was rusty.
The goaltender that thrives on a heavy workload has arguably not recovered. In his 20 starts since the all-star break, Braden Holtby has a .903 save percentage and a 2.50 goals-against average, and he’s been pulled from a game three times. Before then, he was the runaway Vezina Trophy favorite with a .920 save percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average.
“Just the way the season goes sometimes,” Holtby said. “There’s ups and downs and you battle through it.”
Goaltending coach Mitch Korn said a variety of factors have contributed to the statistical dip: everything from game circumstances to bad luck to Holtby sometimes just not being as sharp. The team’s play in front of Holtby often doesn’t get enough credit when he has a good performance and not enough blame when he has a bad one.
But for all of the public debate over whether Holtby should have been rested more — especially considering the team’s secure position in the standings — Korn instead believes too much rest negatively affected Holtby, starting with the snowstorm and then the all-star break.
“You can’t say he’s tired, and I wanted to make sure he wasn’t tired,” Korn said. “And then trying to make sure he wasn’t tired, we may have let the foot off the gas a little bit, and shame on me.”
Holtby has said that if it were up to him, he’d play every game. He started more games than any other goaltender in the NHL last year, with 73, but the Capitals were also in a playoff race and Justin Peters wasn’t as capable a backup as Philipp Grubauer has been this season. With Washington nursing a massive lead in the playoff race, Holtby’s workload has decreased to 59 starts so far this season. He will likely get seven more before the playoffs.
Since the 2009-10 season, only one Stanley Cup champion team has had a goaltender who played more than 60 games, with fatigue in the playoffs being the argument against such a workload. Because the blizzard caused Washington’s games against Anaheim and Pittsburgh to be postponed on Jan. 22 and 24, respectively, Holtby got more than a week off before he started against the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 27.
In that game, Holtby allowed four goals on 32 shots in a 4-3 overtime loss. He participated in the All-Star Game that weekend in Nashville, and the Capitals rested him the first game after the break, giving him another week between starts. Before then, Holtby had allowed three or more goals12 times in 39 starts. Since the break, he’s allowed at least three goals nine times in 20.
“Everybody’s been saying, ‘Oh, he’s tired. You don’t want to overwork him. He went to the All-Star Game,’ ” Korn said. “I didn’t want to put too much of a physical burden on him, and looking back, sometimes you don’t know until it’s over. Looking back, I probably needed to put that burden on him at different times.”
Korn blames himself in particular for not being diligent enough with off-day training. Some of that is a function of a congested second-half schedule, as the team hasn’t had more than two days in between games since the all-star break. Because of that and the stellar record, there have been more off days with no practices. That may be good for resting bumps and bruises, but it isn’t helpful for goaltenders wanting to see shots to stay in a rhythm.
Take Friday’s game against the New Jersey Devils as an example: The Capitals won’t have a morning skate in Newark, but even 72 games into their season, Holtby may seek morning ice time. Despite some inconsistent play, his record has stayed strong (44-9-4), and he’s four wins away from tying the single-season wins record set by Martin Brodeur.
But with 10 regular season games left, the Capitals would like to see Holtby in his pre-snowstorm form once the postseason starts and games skew more defensive.
“I think it’s a combination of a variety of things, and I get it,” Korn said. “Our goal now is to just, from this moment forward, if you will, to start to build toward that day in April that everything gets started. That’s our purpose now.”