Braden Holtby perseveres as Capitals’ adjustment to new system begins to pay off

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That keeps him from thinking too big-picture and giving himself too much credit when he knows teammates deserve a lion’s share of it.

“I think my turnaround is an attribute to how well we’re playing in front of me,” Holtby said, pointing to shots that were blocked away instead of beating him because of screens. “That’s an attribute to our guys being on top of their game. They’re playing outstanding, and I think we can expect nothing less than that from the rest.”

In that sense, time and experience are on Holtby’s side. Caps players said they will continue to perfect Oates’ system the more they get a chance to play it.

For coach Mark French’s Bears, that was certainly the case. Hershey started 8-12-1-0 and has gone 20-9-2-5 since to climb into a playoff position.

“We often say in hockey there’s no time to think, it’s all about reaction,” French said. “And I think that’s exactly what it was with the system is that early on you’re trying to think if you’re in the right spot, and it slows everything down because of the thought process. And it’s just repetitions about getting to a state where it’s all about reaction.

“I really like the system. We’ve continually been the team down here that’s been in the top five for goals against and I think a lot of that is around the system, and I think goalies would tell you it probably is an easier system to play.”

Easier because when the system is executed correctly, the vast majority of shots come from the perimeter. That’s in part how Holtby starred for the Caps in last year’s playoffs, taking advantage of Dale Hunter hockey, which cut down on quality scoring chances for the opposition with plenty of blocked shots.

“Everyone knows that makes a goalie’s life easy,” Holtby said. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish here, and it’s a steady progress right now.”

Steady progress with Oates’ system that Carlson knew about, too, from conversations with players in Hershey.

“They had a little bit of a trial period with it, and it took them a lot longer than it took us to kind of get a grasp of it,” Carlson said. “I think the best part about the whole scenario was from Day One, everyone stuck to it when we were losing games and playing bad, guys didn’t come in the room and question anything. We stayed [together] as a team, did the right things, and clearly it took a little bit longer than any of us would like. But in the end, hopefully it works out for the better.”

Oates acknowledged that “it takes awhile for any system to adjust to,” and Holtby knew better than to walk into the Caps’ locker room and question early-season struggles.

“I believed it was going to happen,” he said. “Everyone else, there was shock on everyone’s faces that we were out of the blocks so slow, but I knew it was going to turn around. The system is very good, and it just takes a little bit of time to learn it.”

Buoyed by recent history and the confidence that his teammates’ system play would improve, all Holtby had to do was maintain consistency.

“Some guys would’ve been so rattled by the start that now that the team’s playing well, the goaltending might not have been at the same level,” Kolzig said. “But because of Braden’s belief in himself, he’s able to deliver when the team finally is playing together very well.”

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