NEW YORK — Tomas Vokoun already was out of commission when a nagging groin injury flared up and knocked him out in late March. It was a week later when Florida Panthers forward Marco Sturm fell awkwardly on Michal Neuvirth and changed the course of the Washington Capitals’ season.
“I forgot about that, to tell you the truth,” forward Keith Aucoin said. “Those are things you don’t think about, I guess. It’s crazy.”
Crazy happened when 22-year-old prospect Braden Holtby assumed the role of the starter. The past month and a half he became a revelation, and he led the Caps on an improbable run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
It might have been tough to see after Saturday night’s 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers, but the Caps’ future in net looks bright.
“Braden’s certainly helped his cause…. I think we’re all very proud of the way he’s played,” veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. “He’s juggling a lot coming in here, and to be able to just play as steady and give us a chance to win every night, he did that. You can’t say more about a guy who comes in and does that.”
Holtby juggled the impending birth of his son until Benjamin Hunter was born Thursday along with the weight of expectations that built up over these playoffs. He was given little chance from the outside when matched against Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins, or Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers, but he showed maturity and grit beyond his 14 games of NHL experience.
“The thing with Braden was just consistency. That was the thing we were worried about: Could he do it night in and night out? What really impressed me most about him in the playoffs is his resiliency,” associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig said recently. “Whether he gives up a bad goal or has a bad game, hell come back and make that next big save or hell come back and win the next game…. The mental toughness, the resiliency and the calmness, its been impressive to watch.”
Holtby thrived behind a tight-checking defensive system that limited the quality and quantity of chances. He stopped 177 of 192 shots, compiling a 7-7 record with a 1.95 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.
“Hes played well, you know? Under extreme pressure, he had to go up against Thomas, you know, Stanley Cup winner and now Lundqvist, who could be MVP of the league,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. “He battled tooth-and-nail even with them. Proud of him.”
Holtby takes losses so hard, like falling in triple overtime in Game 3 when he said, “maybe Ill accept it after the fourth round, after we win, but thats my job.” He talks about the Stanley Cup often and said before the playoffs that his vision of winning it changes all the time.
He didn’t envision this impressive stretch ending like this, with confetti falling from the rafters of Madison Square Garden as he had to swallow his first NHL playoff series defeat.
“It’s disappointing. We really did believe in here that we had the team to do it all,” Holtby said. “We really cant hang our head at the effort. Little things, inches. Its what, 13 out of 14 one-goal games? We gave ourselves a chance to win every night.”
Thanks in large part to Holtby, who staked his claim to the starting job well beyond these playoffs.