- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2012

Michal Neuvirth was prepared last week when Tomas Vokoun left the Washington Capitals‘ game in Boston. Vokoun had been battling a groin injury, and Neuvirth quickly realized this was his net.

Braden Holtby didn’t have that kind of advanced mental preparation. He didn’t think he’d be the goaltender in net when the Caps clinched a playoff spot.

“You definitely don’t want to think that way because I knew it would be an injury if that happened,” Holtby said. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s why you have two goalies on the bench.”

And a goaltender like Holtby who jumped in Thursday night and made 12 saves to get the Capitals to the playoffs with a 4-2 victory over the Florida Panthers. It was perhaps the toughest situation the 22-year-old goaltender has been put in during his brief time in the NHL, but he shined.

“It was pretty hard, but it’s what good goalies do. It doesn’t matter what situation is,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “They just go out there and show their character and show leadership.”

Neuvirth went down with 14:12 left in the second period, after making 13 saves and playing well enough for the Capitals to take the lead. Ex-Washington forward Marco Sturm appeared to get his skate caught up with Neuvirth’s and fell on Neuvirth’s left leg, which bent the wrong way at the knee.

Neuvirth needed help gliding off the ice and wasn’t putting any weight on his left leg. Coach Dale Hunter called him day-to-day with a lower body injury and conceded the Caps wouldn’t know more until Friday.

Enter Holtby.

“It’s a tough spot, but I think that anybody who’s played the game wants to be in that tough spot,” Hunter said. “I think he relished it and then came out and did what he had to do to win.”

Holtby allowed a couple of goals to the Panthers, including a flukey knuckling puck that floated past him. But he didn’t let it bother him.

“Not rattling the team, that’s the big thing there,” Holtby said. “Sometimes those goals go in and you start thinking, ‘Are the bounces not going our way now?’ Those goals happen, and I think over time you start to accept them a little bit more. Obviously, you don’t want them to happen in a game like this, but we battled through very well and got the win.”

Holtby didn’t really want to think about the possibility of being the team’s starting goalie in the playoffs, though he will be if Neuvirth’s injury is as serious as it looked at first. Given Vokoun’s uncertain status, veteran Dany Sabourin, who has been Holtby’s backup with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League this season, would be next in line to be recalled.

Holtby’s focus is on Saturday’s showdown with the New York Rangers that could potentially lead to a fifth straight Southeast Division title.

“I don’t want to look forward and do it too much. I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” he said. “We have a game against New York coming up, and that’s what I’m focusing on right now. Every game counts right now for me.”

Given the stakes Thursday night, Holtby made his relief appearance count, and buoyed his teammates’ already overflowing confidence in him.

“He did great. He’s very similar to Neuvy where he doesn’t show a lot of emotion,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “He goes out there and just plays and makes things look easy. He makes everything look calm, so that’s very good for us. He can help calm us all down.”