- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Braden Holtby’s mask wasn’t supposed to be a metaphor.

The image of a roller coaster was designed to be a nod to the rides at Hersheypark, adjacent to Giant Center, where the goaltender spent much of the season playing for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. Instead, it was symbolic of a year of ups and downs with Hershey and the Washington Capitals.

And though disappointment and frustration have filled the past several months, plenty more twists and turns await. Injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth thrust Holtby, 22, into the role of starting goaltender for Game 1 of the their Stanley Cup playoff series Thursday night at Boston.

“We have no choice. If the other guys aren’t ready to go, he’s playing,” general manager George McPhee said. “He can handle it.”

History provides few examples of goaltenders with such limited experience winning a Cup. Odds stacked against him, the confident, borderline-cocky Holtby has no doubt he’s ready for the challenge.

“I don’t think there was ever a question about that,” he said. “If I did question it, we’re in trouble.”

Climbing a mountain

Holtby’s favorite goaltender growing up was Montreal Canadiens great Patrick Roy, the owner of four Cup rings, including one from his rookie season in 1985-86. Holtby wasn’t born until three years later, though he has a firm grasp on history: that Ken Dryden won it all in 1971 despite starting just six regular-season games and that Cam Ward was just 22 when he led the Carolina Hurricanes to the promised land in 2006.

Those performances give other goaltenders “hope” that they can author similar fairy tales, Holtby said, but evidence is lacking in this case.

“With Braden, his high-end game is every bit capable of winning NHL playoff series,” goaltending coach Dave Prior said. “But like anybody, if someone tells me they can do this, I ask them, ‘Well, what do you base it on?’ And until you do it, none of us have the right to say we can climb a mountain or whatever, until you actually accomplish it. Then you can say with certainty you know you can do it.”

From junior hockey onward, going back six seasons, Holtby has appeared in only 16 playoff games. Thursday will be his first at the NHL level after appearing in just seven regular-season games in 2011-12.

McPhee noted that the Caps have been here before; Semyon Varlamov had just six games of NHL experience before becoming the playoff starter in 2009 at age 20. But even Varlamov didn’t start the first round with the unquestioned No. 1 distinction, and he faltered in the second round as the Caps fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games.

NBC Sports analyst Mike Emrick said no one gets the title of “playoff goaltender” until he takes a team on a deep run.

Emrick recalled former TV colleague and ex-NHL forward Peter McNab making a habit of asking rookies how their first playoff games stacked up to expectations. Rarely was it even close, and that’s a challenge the young Caps netminder awaits.

“Holtby played some pretty important games down the stretch,” Emrick said. “So it’s not going to be brand new, but in essence it is going to be brand new.”


In addition to the roller coaster, Holtby’s mask features two Japanese characters.

They stand for “Kaizen,” which Holtby referred to as “constant improvement.” He read about it in Robin Sharma’s book, “The Greatness Guide,” which he reads whenever he’s struggling, and remembers the message when looking at his mask before every game.

Holtby has dedicated himself to improving during a season in which he figured he’d be in the NHL full time. In trading Varlamov to Colorado last July 1, the Caps opened up a spot for Holtby that lasted just more than 24 hours. The next day they signed Vokoun as a free agent, relegating Holtby to the AHL.

At the start of the season, Holtby read “Mind Gym,” another book suggested to him by his Alberta-based sports psychologist and goaltending coach John Stevenson. Trying to put the disappointment of not being in Washington behind him, Holtby faltered in the first few months.

“That’s something that I wasn’t accustomed to in the first couple years was bad numbers, not getting wins all the time,” Holtby said. “Trying to figure things out was probably the hardest part.”

A rough call-up performance in February might’ve been Holtby’s only NHL cameo of the season if not for a flare-up of Vokoun’s groin injury in March. Since then, Holtby won in Detroit and at the New York Rangers and earned the confidence of teammates. Many still don’t know much about Holtby away from the rink.

“He’s a young guy, just comes to practice, works hard, gets what he needs and goes home for the day,” defenseman Jeff Schultz said. “He’s a good guy to hang around, just kind of goes on with his business. That’s all I’ve seen of him.”

‘It matters in his heart’

On the ice, Caps players know what they get from Holtby. Coach Dale Hunter praises the Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, native for his puck-handling abilities, and that’s a big part of his game. But it’s his fiery personality that sets Holtby apart.

He’s willing to give an opponent an extra jab with his stick to keep him out of his crease, and he’s not afraid to show emotion. Forward Brooks Laich and Prior compared Holtby’s demeanor to that of Olie Kolzig, who led the Caps to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998.

“He would swing a stick, and it wouldn’t mean that he was rattled or off his game. It was just the competitor inside him, and that’s how he dealt with frustration a little bit,” Laich said. “I like seeing that out of a guy. It shows you that it hurts here, that it matters in his heart and that he’s passionate about what he’s doing.”

Passion was one of the first things Holtby learned about goaltending while growing up in hockey trying to mimic Roy’s intensity.

“I haven’t seen that in any other goaltender ever,” Holtby said. “The way he competed and not only competed but was able to raise his level once things got hard and once his back was against the wall in order to do something, he needed to step up and be a leader on his team.”

Holtby bristles at comparisons to his boyhood idol, saying, “I have a long ways to go, and I know I’ll never be able to be compared to Patrick.”

Never say never. Holtby being the Caps’ playoff starting goalie, with journeyman Dany Sabourin backing him up, would have fetched some pretty long odds at the beginning of the season.

Of course, it would take much longer odds for Holtby to step into the history books alongside Dryden, Roy and Ward.

“It’s going to be a different story if we end up winning it,” Holtby said. “You just try to take it day by day and do what you can to win.”

It’s been a roller coaster of a season. But how long the Caps’ ride lasts rests on Holtby.

“He’s capable, but you have to deliver,” Prior said. “And that’s the opportunity he has in front of him.”

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

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