While an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils, Adam Oates watched the Washington Capitals' playoff series against the New York Rangers with a careful eye. The Devils were set to face the winner, so Oates got the chance to watch goaltender Braden Holtby's standout performance.
“Obviously that was for Holts his coming out party,” the Caps' coach said Saturday. “Against Boston and the Rangers he played really really good hockey for the team and gave them some confidence.”
Holtby picked up confidence during that stellar playoff run, too. But as the 22-year-old returns to Madison Square Garden to face the Rangers for the first time since losing in the Eastern Conference semifinals, one feeling overrides the history at atmosphere of that building.
“The last memory has to be losing there,” Holtby said. “So it's a little bit of revenge for us. We're going to want to put in a very good performance there.”
Holtby will be making just his sixth start at Madison Square Garden. Including the 2011-12 regular-season finale and four playoff games, he's 2-3 with a 2.21 goals-against average and .925 save percentage there.
Without Holtby, the Caps likely wouldn't have gotten past the Boston Bruins, let alone pushed New York to Game 7.
“The way we were playing last year in the playoffs, I didn't even really look at stats or whatnot,” said Holtby, who had a 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage in 14 starts. “That was just a fun time because of how good we were playing, all of us. It wasn't a one-man show in any of the games.”
Except when it was. Holtby stole the show in Game 2 at the Garden last spring, making 26 saves on 28 shots and ensuring the Caps didn't fall into a deep hole against a tough Rangers team.
Oates said the series could've gone either way, thanks in part to Dale Hunter's coin-flip brand of hockey, but Holtby had a lot to do with the Caps' success.
“This year it's a different season,” Holtby said. “I don't think that went through my mind at all.”
Holtby said he has felt comfortable all season, from his time with the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears during the NHL lockout through his past three starts, all victories. It wasn't about replicating the high of the playoff run.
“It's just different circumstances,” he said. “I've just been trying to stick with it, and lately it's been paying off more than it did at the start.”
Part of it is that the Caps have gotten their act together and grown more accustomed to Oates' system. But defenseman Karl Alzner said he noticed something click for Holtby after a rough performance at the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 7.
“You could just tell the way he was making his saves was a lot more simple,” Alzner said. “If it was a hard shot high glove, instead of him really having to swing for it, he was already there.”
Holtby has a 3.89 goals-against average and .877 save percentage, but those numbers aren't indicative of his recent play.
“I think he's been playing great for us regardless of what the goals against have been in the games,” Alzner said. “I think he's been playing well.”
In last year's playoffs, the Caps committed to blocking as many shots as they could get their bodies in front of and tried to limit quality chances at every turn.
“Everyone knows that makes a goalie's life easy. That's no secret,” Holtby said with a laugh. “That's what we're trying to accomplish here, and it's a steady progress right now.”
The Caps' defense has been something of a mess even during the three-game winning streak, allowing more open looks for opponents than Alzner and his teammates would prefer. Some goals have come off odd-man rushes and some from scrambles in front.
“If we can clean that up, [Holtby is] going to have two less goals against every game,” Alzner said. “I think we're trying to do that; we're trying to block a little bit more. It doesn't always show up on the stat sheet, but I know we have been blocking a little bit more. It's mainly him.”
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