Braden Holtby settles in after early struggles

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Braden Holtby hadn’t played in five days. In the first 10 minutes Thursday night, didn’t look like the same man who has owned the Washington Capitals’ starting goaltender job for a vast majority of the season.

“I don’t know if that had anything to do with not playing, but I felt a little out of control, a little erratic at times,” Holtby said.

Holtby flailed around his crease, even once spinning around to find the puck. Coach Adam Oates conceded that “obviously, he looked like he was fighting it a little bit early.”

But Holtby didn’t implode. Far from it.

Instead, he allowed just one goal on the Carolina Hurricanes’ first 14 shots and none on their final 29 on the way to a 3-1 victory on Thursday night.

“That’s Holts,” defenseman Mike Green said. “The more shots he gets, the better he is and the bigger the game the better he plays. He’s been outstanding.”

Big Game Braden made 43 saves, a regular-season career high. Holtby showed his teammates and everyone else something by rebounding from early struggles against Carolina.

“You just have to realize what’s happening and find a way to change the way you’re doing things,” Holtby said. “It wasn’t a matter of mental stuff. It was just technical. I was being too aggressive on stuff. …

“You’ve got to kind of tone it down a little bit and realize you can be better, but it wasn’t as bad as it felt. So it’s just regroup like that and come out in the second and then things got better.”

Things got better because Holtby got better as the game went on. He made a sliding save on Jordan Staal later on and maintained the Caps’ lead even when his teammates didn’t have their best.

“Maybe [we surrendered] too many chances to make it look easy I guess,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “He made some huge saves in the second period, he had a real big pad save back door on Staal, a few more solid saves at the end of the game, scrambles around our net.”

In the first 10 minutes, Holtby had to make a bevy of saves because the Hurricanes were on the attack most of the time. If not for him, the Caps could’ve been trailing by two or three goals.

“Huge. I remember looking up at the scoreboard and the shots were outrageous and we had nothing,” Green said. “He was outstanding throughout the whole game, I mean even the last five, 10 minutes of the game he made some big saves that should’ve been goals.”

Holtby said he felt better after getting through the first rough patch. Captain Alex Ovechkin didn’t want to even acknowledge that Holtby struggled early.

“I don’t think he was shaky at all,” Ovechkin said. “I think he was play great. That’s what we need from him.”

Holtby needed some help, too. The Hurricanes would have made it 2-0 with 53 seconds left in the first period when Jay Harrison’s shot got past Holtby and it was close to going over the goal line.

Defenseman John Carlson swept the puck away before it could go in.

“Being a goaltender, one of the things that keeps driving you forward is you want to be that guy driving your teammates and helping them out and being that part of the team,” Holtby said. “When you see guys getting that puck off the goal line in the first, that makes it even more that you want to be there for them if they make a mistake. It goes both ways.”

But it ultimately comes down to Holtby. After Michal Neuvirth started and won the past two games, Holtby again showed why the Caps will ride him down the stretch.

“He’s one of those guys, he works really, really hard in practice,” Carlson said. “So even when he’s not playing he’s staying sharp and doing what he needs to do. It’s good for him because we needed him tonight and he came up huge.”

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