Photo credit: Mitchell Layton
In March of 2011, a 22-year-old Saskatchewan native got called up to the Capitals after one of their netminders suffered an injury. Unproven and raw, he seemed at ease as he created a three-way goalie controversy on one of the league’s top teams. In March of 2012, a 23-year-old Saskatchewan native may be doing the same thing.
In his three games up with Washington after Tomas Vokoun went out with a groin injury, Braden Holtby has been stellar and ever improving as he turned a .889 save percentage in the first two months of the year in the AHL into a sparkling shutout performance in front of 18,506 fans (but who’s counting?) in one of his team’s biggest games of the year. With the Capitals fighting for every point as they try to squeak into the playoffs, head coach Dale Hunter may have no choice but to play the hot hand — even if the question was supposed to be settled when the Capitals traded away Michal Neuvirth’s competition before making the surprise signing of Vokoun in the summer.
“From my short stint in pro hockey you realize things change really quickly,” Holtby told reporters after the game. “I was ready, that’s what I’ve been working towards in Hershey all year. I’m trying to make good call-ups count.”
And Sunday he did that, making 28 stops on his way to being named the first star of the game. Particularly impressive was his series of flopping pad saves midway through an otherwise sleepy first period, prompting NBC’s Mike Emrick to burst a few eardrums.
Holtby’s play also earned him congratulatory visits in the locker room after the game from two hockey luminaries: Smokin’ Al Koken and Caps goalie coach Dave Prior.
As readers of this blog have read a mind-numbing number of times, Holtby is known for his idiosyncratic “Holtbyisms,” aggressive play, and slick — and sometimes frightening — puck-handling that stems from his days as a young forward (his dad thought goalie gear was too expensive).
“It’s great. Tomas goes down, it could be a big drop off, it could be all on Neuvy’s shoulders,” winger Mike Knuble said of Holtby’s recent play, which includes of a win against the Red Wings and a shootout loss to Flyers superstar goalie and noted tripper Ilya Bryzgalov.
“I can’t think of a soft goal,” Knuble added. “Every goal they’ve got on him as been legit. He’s played hard, he deserved what he got tonight.”
Still, Holtby was as humble as ever as he talked about his game afterwards, so much so you might think his defenseman were the ones in pads Sunday. Deep down he’s still the kid from the middle of nowhere (Canada), getting his shot in the heat of a NHL playoff race.
“If I get the opportunity, I want to play hard and win games” Holtby said. “Obviously this time of year, with the way the standings are, it doesn’t matter who is in goal, it doesn’t matter the reasons. We need wins and we got one tonight.”
Speaking to the media after the game, Hunter seemed to indicate he thought of Holtby merely as stopgap. With the playoffs right around the corner — if there is a corner — there doesn’t appear to be a goalie controversy. But perhaps there should be.