To Braden Holtby, nothing has changed.
Ask him midway through the season what improved in his play, and the Washington Capitals goaltender explained that he thought he had been consistent throughout. The same goes a year after his breakout performance in the 2012 playoffs.
“The goal is the same,” Holtby said. “I’m going to try to use the experience to my advantage. But at the same time, I’m going to prepare the same way. As far as goaltending goes, it’s just another game.”
But things are not the same 11 months after Holtby played his first game in the Stanley Cup playoffs following injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. This time, Holtby has the benefit of being an established and unquestioned starting goalie in the NHL.
“He’s one of those guys, he’s so mature that he knows how to handle the pressure, he knows how to get himself ready,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Now it’s not necessarily everybody doubting him like they were last year and him having to prove himself. Now it’s him continuing to play the way we know he can play.”
Holtby was one of the biggest stories in the playoffs last year as he helped carry the Caps to within a victory of the Eastern Conference finals by putting up a 1.95 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. At 22 years old, he showed the poise of a veteran.
“If you treat every game the same, you’ll be more consistent,” Holtby said. “The top performers in clutch situations, they look like they’re bringing it up a bit, but they always have that calm look on their face. They’re always calm in the key situations, and that’s when you can perform your best.”
Holtby was a star in 14 games during last year’s playoffs, but in shouldering the load this season he showed he could put together strong, sustained play. Now 23, he went 23-12-1 with a 2.58 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
“He was incredible and he’s been good this season, as well,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We rely on him a lot, and he’s a great goalie.”
Holtby was great a year ago, too, and that’s why teammates don’t think much has changed.
“We trusted him last year, we trust him this year,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Maybe for himself, being there now in the thick of things, he knows what it takes. But as a player it’s all the same every single game that he’s been in the net since he’s been here. I’ve trusted him and knew he was a great one. He’s obviously proved that.”
Coach Adam Oates said he’s sure his players “feel good” about Holtby having some more seasoning at hockey’s highest level. It certainly can’t hurt, right?
“There are things that you can gain from experience in terms of your play, but when it comes down to it, that stuff is thrown out the window,” Holtby said. “You just have to perform, you have to believe that we’re the better team and you go from there. You throw experience out the window and you just play.”
Some of it is life experience. As Alzner pointed out, Holtby “doesn’t have a baby that could be born any day.”
That’s a big difference; fiancee Brandi gave birth to Benjamin Hunter before Game 7 against the New York Rangers in last season’s conference semifinal. Holtby’s first child will be a year old on the day the Caps and Rangers play Game 5, if the conference quarterfinal series gets that far.