Braden Holtby turned a corner and entered the visitors’ dressing room at Scottrade Center in St. Louis on Saturday night when his teammates immediately greeted him with a round of applause.
Holtby had, moments earlier, polished off the Washington Capitals’ victory over the St. Louis Blues to equal Martin Brodeur’s NHL record for wins in a season by a goaltender. The pursuit of the 48-win mark, which Holtby seemed poised to break for weeks, had made him wholly uncomfortable, and so as others hooted and hollered in support, all Holtby could do to break the tension was to offer an exaggerated clap in their direction in response.
“Guys were obviously pretty excited, and we shared it together, which was fun,” Holtby said afterward. “You know, got it out of the way and now we can really focus on what we’re trying to accomplish.”
That goal is the same as it has been every spring, the one that has eluded the Washington Capitals for the entirety of their 41-year existence. For the better part of the next two weeks, and potentially longer, they will pursue the Stanley Cup, arguably the most recognizable trophy in professional team sports.
A franchise-record 56-win season led to the Capitals’ seizure of the Presidents’ Trophy, given to the top team in the league each year, and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, which they had sewn up before any other conference opponent had even qualified for the playoffs.
Holtby has played perhaps the biggest part in that. The 26-year-old, who shed his longtime “goaltender of the future” label with a breakout season last year, has emerged as a candidate not only for the Vezina Trophy, given to the top goaltender, but for the Hart Trophy, one of the league’s MVP awards, as well.
He did not lose in regulation from Nov. 12 to Jan. 14, a span of 22 games. His 2.20 goals-against average, good for fifth in the league, tied Olie Kolzig’s mark for the lowest in franchise history. And, he was one of four Capitals players selected to play in the All-Star Game in January, marking his first trip.
“He did so many great things for us this year,” said defenseman Nate Schmidt, one of Holtby’s better friends on the team. “This is not something that’s just happening because we’re playing well. It’s because he’s such a vital part of our team.”
Holtby was part of a trio of goaltenders drafted by the Capitals in 2006 and 2008, joining Semyon Varlamov, now with the Colorado Avalanche, and Michal Neuvirth, currently with the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington’s first-round opponent.
Those with the Capitals had long figured that Holtby would end up being the best of the three, but the presence of the other two, drafted before him, blocked his ascension. After two years of making spot starts, it wasn’t until 2012-13 season that Holtby was given a regular opportunity. Even then, that progress was stunted a year later under then-coach Adam Oates, who cycled through goaltenders as the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.
“You could see it, that he was going to be great,” said Bruce Boudreau, the coach of the Capitals when Holtby was drafted and now the coach of the Anaheim Ducks. “He just had a lot going for him. Then, by winning [a minor-league title in 2010] in Hershey, he’s just getting better every year. Now, instead of a boy, he looks just like a young man with a lot of confidence.”
Part of Holtby’s success comes from his routine — his elaborate, two-hour warm-up before each game that tests his focus and coordination. He also prefers to play as often as possible and, when not tabbed to start, will undergo his own rigorous workout with goaltending coach Mitch Korn, considered by his peers to be one of the best in the league.
“He’s self-motivated, for sure, and he did his thing,” Korn said. “Everything’s centering around this record, but regardless of this record, it’s a pretty magnificent season for him.”
Holtby had earned his 47th victory on April 1, beating his favorite team growing up, the Colorado Avalanche, coached by his childhood idol, Patrick Roy. That left him, realistically, three chances to pick up two victories — goaltenders rarely play in both games when they’re scheduled for consecutive days — and pass Brodeur to claim the single-season mark.
The Capitals lost in overtime in each of Holtby’s next two starts, leaving him with just one opportunity over the final two games to tie the record. He did, making 19 saves in a 5-1 victory over the Blues.
“We did everything we could in order to try [to break it],” Holtby said. “It’s still pretty cool to just be up there. We just ran out of games. We didn’t play enough games. It happens.”
After the dressing room celebration ended, Holtby left the room and bumped into a familiar face in the hallway. Brodeur, who is now an assistant general manager with the Blues, offered his congratulations in their first face-to-face meeting.
Now, Holtby’s pursuit of Brodeur begins anew. He won the Stanley Cup three times during a 20-year career with the New Jersey Devils — something Holtby hopes he can do for the first time in June.
“You could win one at 20 and never win one again, or you could go 20 years without winning one,” Holtby said. “You just try to live in the moment and do your best to try to give yourself a chance.”