- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2011

The axiom goes that the most popular player on a losing football team is often the backup quarterback, as fans clamor for some kind of shake-up. The backup goalie often fits that role in hockey, but with Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth both struggling for the Washington Capitals, the popular guy is minor leaguer Braden Holtby.

Holtby has become a fan favorite as the guy to at least provide a spark in net for a team that has gotten subpar goaltending so far. But the 22-year-old is focused on his play for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League and not the pleas for him to get back to the NHL.

“I think that’s just one of the things that happens when the team is struggling is you look for change in some ways. And if my name has been tossed up, that’s out of my control,” Holtby said in a phone interview Thursday.” I’ve been preparing all year in order to get a chance there. … All I can focus on is my game and not let that stuff bother me or get into my head and instill too much confidence in me.”

Holtby hasn’t watched much of the Caps this season and said he’s “in no position to judge” how Vokoun (.906 save percentage) and Neuvirth (.875) are performing. But Holtby’s numbers haven’t been stellar, either — an 8-6-1 record, 2.61 goals-against average and .898 save percentage.

But those numbers could partially be a product of a Bears team that has gone through some struggles this season.

“I don’t feel like I’ve been playing that bad. But the team’s a lot different here in Hershey. The past couple years I think the numbers were favored in my way with not really reflecting on the way I was playing. This year is kind of the opposite on some days,” Holtby said. “I haven’t felt like I’ve played my best, but there has been a lot of positives over the last few weeks to get to where I want to be.”

Where Holtby wants to be is the NHL. In his 14-game cameo with the Caps last season he was 10-2-2 with a 1.79 GAA and .934 save percentage. On July 1 it looked like he would get a chance to back up Neuvirth after the trade of Semyon Varlamov, but July 2 brought the signing of Vokoun, which relegated Holtby to starting duty in Hershey.

One common theory about Holtby’s numbers this season has to do with being disappointed in not playing for the Caps — but it’s not one the goalie himself subscribes to.

“I don’t think that has a whole bunch to do with it,” said Holtby, who blamed some of it on trying to do too much with a changing team. “All I can really focus on is giving the team a chance to win. I don’t think it has anything to do with the up-and-down swing of this summer or not. It’s more just little things in my game that I can improve on.”

That’s where goaltending coach Dave Prior and associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig come in, as they’ve tried to help Holtby figure out things like crease control and playing better angles and not so deep in his net.

Holtby said Prior isn’t concerned with his statistics as much as the “process” of getting better.

“He really doesn’t care about next year or whatever the plan is,” Holtby said. “He wants me to improve the things that I think I need to improve and that he thinks I need to improve. If I work hard enough on those things, then I will be where I want to be and where the Caps want me to be.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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