Sitting out his fifth straight game, Braden Holtby sat in the visitors locker room at Air Canada Centre in Toronto and brushed off concern like a shot from 40 feet out he saw all the way. The Washington Capitals goaltender didn’t sweat 10 goals allowed in two games or his .863 save percentage.
That’s because Holtby remembered what happened when he was with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League only a few months earlier.
“It’s funny the similarities with the start of our season here with the start in Hershey,” Holtby said. “Teamwise, I think we gave up eight goals or something in our [third] game in Hershey. … That’s just what happens. So I guess that’s life.”
That was Jan. 31 and Holtby wasn’t worried. Even a week later, after the 23-year-old gave up nine goals over two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, his confidence wasn’t shaken.
“When everybody was criticizing the goaltending and obviously the penalties we were taking, you’d talk to Braden and he couldn’t have been more confident,” associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig said. “He knew where his game was at.”
Where Holtby’s game is at now seems to be peak performance. He has three shutouts in his past nine straight starts, going 6-3 with a 2.11 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in that time.
But thanks to his Hershey experience, Holtby has some perspective about recent success that has as much to do with the Caps’ growth in coach Adam Oates’ system as it does his own play.
“You know what you sign up for as a goalie: You usually get too much credit for wins and too much criticism for losses,” he said. “You get used to it after awhile.”
Holtby won’t play into the idea that he’s making more big saves than he was in his first two turbulent starts, a 6-3 defeat at Tampa Bay and 4-2 loss to Winnipeg. Sure, there were some goals he’d want back, Kolzig said, but the statistics were more indicative of team struggles than Holtby’s.
“He was getting victimized in certain situations,” Kolzig said. “But now because of his belief and the way the guys are playing now, all that stuff earlier has kind of rolled off his back.”
The same thing happened with the Bears, and it was an even longer process. In Holtby’s first 11 AHL appearances this season, he had a 2.71 goals-against average and .924 save percentage; in his final 11, he had a 1.45 GAA and .951 save percentage.
“We were getting outshot 2-to-1 in the first month in that system,” Holtby said. “Then we turned it around and it was the exact same thing. We were playing in their end most of the time and getting most of the chances.”
It’s going to take more than one 6-3 stretch to turn the Caps’ fortunes around, from the goal line out. But all indications are that Oates will give Holtby every opportunity to carry the load in net, continuing Tuesday night against the Boston Bruins.
“I really like the fire that he has. It looks he wants to play every single night, it looks like he wants that responsibility,” Oates said. “That’s a good feeling to see a guy that even when it hasn’t gone his way, it looks like he still wants to be there.”
Part of it might be psychological. Holtby, to use a term defenseman John Carlson coined after last week’s 3-0 thrashing of the Carolina Hurricanes, doesn’t go “shutout-hunting.” He breaks games down methodically into three sets and each one of those into five-minute segments.
That keeps him from thinking too big-picture and giving himself too much credit when he knows teammates deserve a lion’s share of it.
“I think my turnaround is an attribute to how well we’re playing in front of me,” Holtby said, pointing to shots that were blocked away instead of beating him because of screens. “That’s an attribute to our guys being on top of their game. They’re playing outstanding, and I think we can expect nothing less than that from the rest.”
In that sense, time and experience are on Holtby’s side. Caps players said they will continue to perfect Oates’ system the more they get a chance to play it.
For coach Mark French’s Bears, that was certainly the case. Hershey started 8-12-1-0 and has gone 20-9-2-5 since to climb into a playoff position.
“We often say in hockey there’s no time to think, it’s all about reaction,” French said. “And I think that’s exactly what it was with the system is that early on you’re trying to think if you’re in the right spot, and it slows everything down because of the thought process. And it’s just repetitions about getting to a state where it’s all about reaction.
“I really like the system. We’ve continually been the team down here that’s been in the top five for goals against and I think a lot of that is around the system, and I think goalies would tell you it probably is an easier system to play.”
Easier because when the system is executed correctly, the vast majority of shots come from the perimeter. That’s in part how Holtby starred for the Caps in last year’s playoffs, taking advantage of Dale Hunter hockey, which cut down on quality scoring chances for the opposition with plenty of blocked shots.
“Everyone knows that makes a goalie’s life easy,” Holtby said. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish here, and it’s a steady progress right now.”
Steady progress with Oates’ system that Carlson knew about, too, from conversations with players in Hershey.
“They had a little bit of a trial period with it, and it took them a lot longer than it took us to kind of get a grasp of it,” Carlson said. “I think the best part about the whole scenario was from Day One, everyone stuck to it when we were losing games and playing bad, guys didn’t come in the room and question anything. We stayed [together] as a team, did the right things, and clearly it took a little bit longer than any of us would like. But in the end, hopefully it works out for the better.”
Oates acknowledged that “it takes awhile for any system to adjust to,” and Holtby knew better than to walk into the Caps’ locker room and question early-season struggles.
“I believed it was going to happen,” he said. “Everyone else, there was shock on everyone’s faces that we were out of the blocks so slow, but I knew it was going to turn around. The system is very good, and it just takes a little bit of time to learn it.”
Buoyed by recent history and the confidence that his teammates’ system play would improve, all Holtby had to do was maintain consistency.
“Some guys would’ve been so rattled by the start that now that the team’s playing well, the goaltending might not have been at the same level,” Kolzig said. “But because of Braden’s belief in himself, he’s able to deliver when the team finally is playing together very well.”