HARRIS: Putting Braden Holtby in goal a no-brainer for Caps

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Finally, the NHL returns. The lockout-delayed season openers are Saturday and the Capitals get things started with a visit to Tampa Bay in a game that comes more than eight months after the previous season ended.

Yes, it’s about time.

The Caps go into the season, as usual, with tons of questions. Will Alex Ovechkin return to his Great 8 days as maybe the best player in hockey? How will new additions Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolski fit in? How hurt is Brooks Laich? How will Adam Oates handle the transition to head coach? Are the Capitals still legit Cup contenders or have those days gone by?

One question the Caps should not be facing: Who is the No. 1 goaltender?

If Braden Holtby hasn’t done enough to lock that down and lock it down hard, one can only wonder what people were watching the last time hockey was actually played. That’s no disrespect to Michal Neuvirth, who has shown himself to be a quality NHL-caliber keeper. But Holtby has provided more “wow” moments in net than any of the goalies the Caps have tried since Olie Kolzig left the team in 2008.

Caps in net have been an interesting mix since the end of the Kolzig era. There have been seven, some young and some old. All had their moments. Cristobal Huet. Neuvirth. Semyon Varlamov. Brent Johnson. Jose Theodore. Tomas Vokoun. And Holtby.

Because of injuries to Vokoun and Neuvirth, Holtby had to play in the 2012 playoffs. All he did was own the town, posting a 1.95 goals against average and a .935 save percentage in 14 games. Shirts with “Holtbeast” on the back were hot sellers (and this town needs a new Beast with Michael Morse traded away by the Nats).

Holtby provided some high-quality moments at the end of a season that was a head-scratcher most of the way.

“I told him after last year’s playoffs, I don’t think our other goalies could have done the job any better than he did,” said Dave Prior, the Caps’ goaltending coach. “He’s a presence in the goal, shows a lot of confidence. He took a big step last year in his discipline, in playing more structured than he has. We want to make sure that continues.”

Holtby’s claim to the job goes beyond that playoff run, though. Just as big, maybe bigger, is the 10-2-2 mark he posted during the 2010-11 season. Another 14-game sample. A 1.79 goals-against and a .934 save percentage. Sense a pattern? Given a consistent shot, the guy is really good. He’s not perfect. He gave up 13 goals in a four-game stretch in 2011. Hey, they all get lit now and then. The key thing is, he recovered to win eight of his last nine starts. He gave up one or zero goals in seven of those games.

Even his brief appearance during last year’s regular season was pretty good, though not at quite the same level. He won four of seven starts. He gave up five goals in one game (it happens), two or fewer in four others.

It’s admittedly a small sample size. But in 35 games including playoffs, Holtby has won 21 times. In five of the losses, he gave up two or fewer goals.

Face it Caps. This is your best goalie, your best in years. Embrace it. Go with it.

Oates, new at the head coaching game, said all the right things earlier in the week. Both will play. Of course they will — no keeper can play every game. His view might change with more experience, Oates said. Prior noted Holtby and Neuvirth have “both accomplished quite a bit in their short careers, but they have yet to prove themselves as bona fide No. 1 NHL goalies.”

Holtby, too, said all the right things. He said “it is easier if we don’t think about it at all.” They tell him to play, he’ll play. Just 23, he acknowledges he doesn’t have the huge backlog of stats needed to make a claim to anything just yet. “My goal,” he said, “is to have a full season where I keep learning, keep improving, keep getting better.”

No doubt he can do that. It will be interesting to see what kind of numbers he puts up with a 60-start regular season, or even a 35-start season in this abbreviated campaign.

The guess is they’d be awfully good.

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