Braden Holtby’s mask wasn’t supposed to be a metaphor.
The image of a roller coaster was designed to be a nod to the rides at Hersheypark, adjacent to Giant Center, where the goaltender spent much of the season playing for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. Instead, it was symbolic of a year of ups and downs with Hershey and the Washington Capitals.
And though disappointment and frustration have filled the past several months, plenty more twists and turns await. Injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth thrust Holtby, 22, into the role of starting goaltender for Game 1 of the their Stanley Cup playoff series Thursday night at Boston.
“We have no choice. If the other guys aren’t ready to go, he’s playing,” general manager George McPhee said. “He can handle it.”
History provides few examples of goaltenders with such limited experience winning a Cup. Odds stacked against him, the confident, borderline-cocky Holtby has no doubt he’s ready for the challenge.
“I don’t think there was ever a question about that,” he said. “If I did question it, we’re in trouble.”
Climbing a mountain
Holtby’s favorite goaltender growing up was Montreal Canadiens great Patrick Roy, the owner of four Cup rings, including one from his rookie season in 1985-86. Holtby wasn’t born until three years later, though he has a firm grasp on history: that Ken Dryden won it all in 1971 despite starting just six regular-season games and that Cam Ward was just 22 when he led the Carolina Hurricanes to the promised land in 2006.
Those performances give other goaltenders “hope” that they can author similar fairy tales, Holtby said, but evidence is lacking in this case.
“With Braden, his high-end game is every bit capable of winning NHL playoff series,” goaltending coach Dave Prior said. “But like anybody, if someone tells me they can do this, I ask them, ‘Well, what do you base it on?’ And until you do it, none of us have the right to say we can climb a mountain or whatever, until you actually accomplish it. Then you can say with certainty you know you can do it.”
From junior hockey onward, going back six seasons, Holtby has appeared in only 16 playoff games. Thursday will be his first at the NHL level after appearing in just seven regular-season games in 2011-12.
McPhee noted that the Caps have been here before; Semyon Varlamov had just six games of NHL experience before becoming the playoff starter in 2009 at age 20. But even Varlamov didn’t start the first round with the unquestioned No. 1 distinction, and he faltered in the second round as the Caps fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games.
NBC Sports analyst Mike Emrick said no one gets the title of “playoff goaltender” until he takes a team on a deep run.
Emrick recalled former TV colleague and ex-NHL forward Peter McNab making a habit of asking rookies how their first playoff games stacked up to expectations. Rarely was it even close, and that’s a challenge the young Caps netminder awaits.
“Holtby played some pretty important games down the stretch,” Emrick said. “So it’s not going to be brand new, but in essence it is going to be brand new.”