Last week, Dennis Wideman scoffed at the notion of Braden Holtby and blissful ignorance to the pressure of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I think he probably knows what it’s about,” the defenseman said.
Holtby didn’t claim to know everything, though. “I can’t really speak too much of it because I haven’t done it yet,” he said.
The young Washington Capitals goaltender talked little of the nerves and expectations and more of wanting to have fun. Through four games and as many brilliant performances, especially Thursday night’s 44-save victory over the Boston Bruins that even the series at two games, it’s worth asking: Braden, are you having fun yet?
“My type of fun is intensity, is big games, big moments,” he said. “I might not show it on my face, but that’s the way I’ve always been. I’ve always had the most fun when I’m battling and competing.”
Holtby has battled and competed against the defending Stanley Cup champions, stifling them at just about every turn. He has a 1.60 goals-against average and .953 save percentage in the first playoff series at the NHL level.
Before this little run started, his personal goaltending coach, John Stevenson, and Caps goaltending coach Dave Prior expressed confidence in Holtby but hedged their optimism. They knew he could be elite but wondered how much experience he’d need to get there.
Turns out, not that much.
“He’s been playing really good. It’s a surprise for you guys, I think, but it’s not as much surprise for us,” Caps center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We knew he was a great goalie. He’s so calm back there. He has good confidence too, and that’s what I like.”
Holtby’s known for being animated; Prior and forward Brooks Laich compared him to ex-Washington goalie Olie Kolzig. But this series, and especially Thursday night, Holtby’s poise carried over to his teammates.
“He just makes it very calm for the rest of us,” Laich said. “When you have a goaltender that’s on top of his game, it really, really settles your team down.”
Especially when he can shake off a loss like Game 3, in which he allowed four goals. Holtby expected a bounce-back game from the Caps at large, and everyone around him knew it was coming from the 22-year-old playing above his lack-of-experience level.
“We think he’s going to be good like that every single game, and he usually is,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It just goes to show how thick his skin is to be able to bounce back after four goals last game and people saying maybe the floodgates are open. That’s a very veteran-like response to the way he played.”
The way Holtby is playing, arguably even better than reigning Vezina Trophy-winner Tim Thomas, it’s hard to hyperbolize his value to the Caps in this series. Laich called him a “stud.” John Erskine said he’s playing “unbelievable.”
Believe it. And believe that Holtby doesn’t even feel he’s on top of his game yet.
“I felt pretty good [Thursday night], but there were still some lucky times and there’s still some improvement to be made,” he said. “There’s still some improvement. I felt good, but far from perfect.”
That has to be scary for an already frustrated Bruins team to hear. It’s almost gotten to the point of what then-Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak did to the Caps in the first round two years ago, helping the Habs upset the first-seeded Capitals.
Holtby has had to be Halak-esque, considering neither team has boasted even as much as a two-goal lead at any time this series.
“That’s playoff hockey. That’s why it’s so fun: the close games, the close battles,” Holtby said. “I hope it doesn’t change, and I hope that we’re on the high end of it every time.”
If Holtby keeps up this trend of spectacular goaltending, the odds are high that the Caps will end up on the better end of at least two more games this series.
“When you get to play in the playoffs, it’s special,” Hunter said.”The intensity is cranked up so much more than it is in the regular season.”
Sounds like Holtby’s kind of game because playoff goaltenders just want to have fun.
• Stephen Whyno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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