Photo credit: Greg Fiume
In the far corner of the room, Braden Holtby sat at his locker and stared at the ground. As the rest of the team spoke to the media, Holtby remained there, stoic and still in full gear. He didn’t look up. Finally, fellow goaltender Michal Neuvirth came over and gave him a tap on the pads. After a few minutes, Holtby got up and walked out of the room.
The Caps had just been smacked by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Holtby gave up six goals on 26 shots. At one point in the game, it was five goals on 14 shots. After coming into the season as the team’s tentative starting netminder, he has a save percentage of just .862. His goals against average is 4.52. Nothing, it seems, is going right for the 23-year-old from Saskatchewan.
“There’s been better days,” Holtby told reporters after he reentered the locker room. “The puck seemed to go in again tonight. I feel like I’m doing some right things and obviously a couple things I’d like to change but just one of those nights.”
While the whole team had its moments of awfulness on Sunday afternoon, at least three of the Pens goals were on Holtby in my book: Kris Letang fired a wrist shot under his left arm in the second, he whiffed on Chris Kunitz’s shot from the top of the circle with his catching glove later in same period, and Kunitz completed the hat trick with a shot from the slot that he was slow to react to at the end of the game.
“We let up a couple of easy goals I think, a couple of mistakes from our side,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “He made some good saves too.”
“I haven’t really watched the goals,” said head coach Adam Oates when asked about Holtby’s play. “There was a time where I thought about pulling him for a spark. But you know what, the guy’s been very good for this franchise the past year. I thought he earned the right to stay in there and fight through it and the guys rallied around him.”
Oates, it seems, is referring to Holtby’s play in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The young netminder pushed the Caps to the second round almost by himself. In 14 games, Holtby had a save percentage of .935 and allowed less than two goals a night.
This season, Holtby was team’s goalie for the first two games and gave up a combined 10 tallies. It wasn’t pretty, but the whole team was playing terribly at the time — they still are in many ways. But as the sample size gets bigger, the worries about Holtby’s play grow. Of the four games under his belt, Holtby has been solid in only one: Friday night’s 3-2 win of the Philadelphia Flyers. With a lockout compressed schedule, the Caps need both of their goalies to play well. They don’t have the luxury to bench one of them.
This was Holtby’s first look at the Penguins, a rivalry that was once the talk of the NHL. Now, it doesn’t have the same feel. The Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin feud, the fuel of the rivalry, lacks have the pull it used to. Crosby has been slowed by concussions, Ovechkin by time. The feeling inside Verizon Center just isn’t the same. Five minutes before puck drop, the seats were half empty. Caps-Pens is starting to become like any other game. And the Caps? They are no longer the dominate team they used to be — right now they’re just bad. Nevertheless, this was a big game for Holtby to lose. The Caps are now 2-6-1. With just five points, they have the third worst record in the league.
“Right now we don’t even care who we play because we need the points,” Backstrom said. “Obviously we know there’s a lot of pressure on us. We need to get better. We need to win hockey games. That’s what we got to talk about and make sure we do better because it’s not good enough.”
Photo credit: Greg Fiume