- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2013

Braden Holtby wasn’t worried about getting a contract extension done with the Washington Capitals. He trusted his agent to take care of the business side.

“My job is the hockey side of it. They’re two totally different things,” Holtby said Monday after signing a two-year, $3.7 million deal. “My job is to focus on the games and make sure I’m performing well, no matter what the contract numbers are, whatnot.”

The Caps have trusted Holtby to be their No. 1 goaltender, beginning with last year’s playoff run and continuing this season. And he has been better than his 5-6 record, 3.37 goals-against average and .896 save percentage indicate.

“He’s found his game again,” general manager George McPhee said. “He was off his game earlier in the year, and that may happen going from the American [Hockey] League [to] here and trying to adjust to a better league. So we like the way he’s playing and what he can bring to the club obviously in the next few years.”

Holtby emerged as the goaltender of the present while leading the Caps to within a victory of the Eastern Conference final last spring, going 7-7 with a 1.95 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. Coach Adam Oates cited that performance as the reason he didn’t pull Holtby in a 6-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 3, and he hasn’t been afraid to lean on the 23-year-old who played for the AHL’s Hershey Bears during the lockout.

“You know, coaching him in Hershey and [watching] him last year, I really like the fire that he has,” Oates said. “It looks he wants to play every single night, it looks like he wants that responsibility.”

Holtby will make his seventh straight start Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes. Oates said backup Michal Neuvirth could play Wednesday at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously he’s got to get some games,” Oates said. “I’ve just [been] riding Holts because he looks sharp. He doesn’t look tired.”

It remains to be seen what Holtby’s contract, which pays the goaltender $1.7 million in 2013-14 and $2 million in 2014-15, means for Neuvirth, who’s set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“It is hard; as you know, I don’t talk about other players and their contracts or anything else, but it doesn’t change opinions or anything,” McPhee said. “What we did for Braden is exactly the same thing we did for Michal a couple years ago.”

Neuvirth, 24, is in the final season of a two-year, $2.3 million contract. He hasn’t played in a game since Feb. 7 at the Penguins, when he was pulled after giving up two goals on 11 shots.

It’s been Holtby’s net since. In six consecutive starts, he’s 4-2 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.

“The bounces seem to be going more our way the last little while,” Holtby said. “But consistently I think it hasn’t changed a whole bunch, it’s just the way hockey’s gone, and it’s going better now.”

Erskine gets extension, too

John Erskine also was rewarded with a two-year contract extension Monday, and the rugged defenseman will earn $3.93 million over the next two seasons.

It was impossible to imagine a year ago that Erskine would be re-upped.

“Not here,” Erskine said, flashing his gap-toothed smile. “I was thinking maybe another team, but things have worked out this season and I’m glad to be here for a couple more years.”

Erskine played just seven times from Jan. 2 through the end of the 2011-12 regular season, but Oates has given him top-four minutes and he has handled the extra responsibility.

“He’s one of those players that he brings some toughness to our team, he brings a lot of grit to our team,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “He’s a good defenseman back there. He’s calm with the puck, makes good plays. You don’t see a lot of physical, tough D-men being able to do that. Having him back there, guys are confident with him there, and it’s nice to have that ability of toughness and grit on the ice on a regular shift.”

Green set to return

Defenseman Mike Green is expected to return to the Caps lineup Tuesday after missing the past three games with a groin injury. Green said he was “absolutely” ready to return, and Oates said the 27-year-old will play unless there’s a setback.

“The decision made Saturday was kind of from experience, and it was a wise one,” Green said of sitting out. “I’m 100 percent and ready to go.”

Ice chips

Center Nicklas Backstrom (illness) missed practice Monday as the team told him to stay home. His status for Tuesday’s game is unclear. … Left wing Jason Chimera (lower-body injury) left practice early, though McPhee said it was “nothing major.” He’s also questionable to play against the Hurricanes.

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

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