Friday, June 08, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Goaltenders: Braden Holtby

Braden Holtby

Theme: “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.”
-- Jack London

(click pic for larger image)

The city of Lloydminster lies squarely on the border of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. It is not two cities of the same name in different provinces; it is one city – a part in one province, a part in another.

Sort of like Lloydminster’s contribution to the roster of NHL goaltenders, Braden Holtby, who was one goalie spending time in Hershey with the AHL Bears and spending time with Washington with the NHL Capitals.

Holtby saw this movie once before, having split time between Hershey and Washington in the 2010-2011 season. He was recalled from Hershey to Washington four times in the regular season, and in those four recalls he posted a superb 10-2-2, 1.79, .934 record with two shutouts. One might have chalked it up to its being a fluke, a product of a young goaltender fueled by the adrenaline of his first call up and the fact that opposing teams did not have a book on his style.

Fair enough. Forward to the 2011-2012 season, where Holtby started his season once more in Hershey. Would he take the lessons learned in his brief stay with the Caps the previous season and apply them as the number one goalie for the Bears? It did not look that way to start the season. He was 3-3-0, 2.99, .886 for October. He was 2-2-1, 2.43, .892 in November. Maybe he was bored, but it still did not look good. In fact, it made the signing of Tomas Vokoun as a free agent for the Caps look even better, since Holtby was giving the impression that he was not really ready for prime time.

Holtby righted himself somewhat over the next two months, posting save percentages of .902 in December and .915 in January. It earned him a call-up on February 13th to replace Vokoun, who had come down with the flu. Given that in his first call-up in 2010-2011 he won his first two decisions (one earned in relief of Michal Neuvirth), stopping 27 of 29 shots in the process, good things might have been expected. Uh, no. He was chum on frozen water for the San Jose Sharks, who ate him up to the tune of five goals on 35 shots in a 5-3 win.

The shock of that did not last long, however. He was sent back to Hershey the next day, where he plodded along for the rest of the month of February with a 4-3-1, 2.60, .909 record. But when Vokoun suffered what would be a season-ending groin injury, Holtby was called up once more. And he was thrown in the deep end right away, facing the Red Wings in Detroit. He won that game, 5-3, and starting with that contest would go 4-1-1, 1.99, .936, with a shutout to finish the season.

A good thing, too, because along the way, Michal Neuvirth was injured in a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers in what would be his last game of the season. With the playoffs about to begin, the keys to the car were in the hands of a goalie with 21 games of experience. And this was not like Semyon Varlamov taking over in the post-season with only six games of regular season experience in 2009; at least he still had a veteran behind him (Jose Theodore, who Varlamov replaced in Game 2 of the opening round). Holtby’s safety-net (at least to start the playoffs) would be Dany Sabourin, who had not played an NHL game since January 2009 and did not have an NHL win since December 2008.

Turns out he did not need one. The win-loss record will say that Holtby was 7-7 – winning one seven-game series, losing the other – but in doing so he allowed more than two goals only three times in those 14 games. His 1.95 goals against average will end the post-season as third best (unless Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick allows 17 goals over three more 60-minute games, in which case Holtby would finish second to Henrik Lundqvist). His .935 save percentage is third (unless Quick allows those 17 goals on fewer than 177 shots on goal, in which case Holtby would finish second to Phoenix’ Mike Smith).

And, his playoff performance was marked by a certain consistency to it, not to mention a certain steeliness. Of the five post-season goalies with a GAA or 2.00 or better and a save percentage of .930 or better, Holtby is the only one without a shutout. He did it by consistently shutting down opponents. One could argue that the result was as much Coach Dale Hunter’s button-downed philosophy or the Caps throwing themselves in front of just about every shot attempted, and there is truth in this. But Holtby, in the end, was the guy who had to stop the pucks getting through, and few did it better in the post-season than he did. Here is how his small sample of games this year compared with his small sample of games last season:

Odd Holtby Fact… Holtby’s career save percentages have improved with each successively higher rung on the ladder -- .905 in the Western Hockey League (juniors), .911 in the ECHL, .918 in the AHL, and .929 with the Caps.

Game to Remember… April 12, 2012. Normally, we would confine this to regular season games, but how can this game be passed over? You are for all intents and purposes the third-string goalie, playing your first NHL career playoff game in the arena that the defending Stanley Cup champions and heavily favored Boston Bruins play. You stop all nine shots in the first period…so good so far. Then, you are the only thing keeping your team from utter disaster as you face 17 shots to the other goalie’s facing only two in the second period. He stops his two; you stop your 17. The roles are reversed a bit in the third period (Caps outshooting the Bruins, 9-3), but none of the shots go in, and the teams go to a scoreless overtime. Yes, the Bruins found a hole barely a minute into the overtime, but Braden Holtby pitched a 60-minute shutout in his first dip into the pressure-cooker of the Stanley Cup playoffs. How is that not the game to remember?

Game to Forget… March 27, 2012. Oh, that one against San Jose in his season debut qualifies. But that’s not it. As the season was winding down, and the Caps were fighting for that last playoff spot, Holtby made his contribution by shutting out the Minnesota Wild, 3-0. But that game was played on March 25th. In his next game, he pretty much crapped the bed against the Buffalo Sabres. It started when he tried to play the puck behind his own net mid-way through the first period. As he was about to send the puck around to his right, he saw that Sabre Cody McCormack was a little too close to John Carlson for comfort to risk the pass. So, he spun around and tried to get the puck to Jeff Schultz. Brad Boyes picked up on what Holtby wanted to do and sprinted down the wall to intercept the pass and center it to McCormack for an easy tap-in.

It got worse late in the period. He could not control the rebound of a shot by Tyler Myers, then when two Sabres swung at the loose puck and missed, Drew Stafford got a whack. Holtby couldn’t control that one, either, the puck trickling through his pads. Stafford got to the puck behind Holtby before he could lunge back to cover it, and Stafford had his easy tap-in. When Thomas Vanek scored just 2:31 into the second period to give the Sabres a 3-0 lead, Holtby’s night was over with three goals allowed on 18 shots in a 5-1 Buffalo win.

In the end… Holtby has been exceeding expectations since he was drafted in the fourth round (93rd overall) in the 2008 entry draft. Nine goalies were taken ahead of Holtby in that draft, and so far only two of them (Thomas McCollum and Jacob Markstrom) have appeared in any NHL regular season games, and Holtby has appeared in more than twice as many (21) as that pair, combined (nine). The 14 playoff games in which he has appeared is 13 more than the only other goalie in the 2008 class to have appeared in one, Nashville’s Anders Lindback. On the basis of his performance in the 2012 playoffs, he has to be considered as a co-favorite with Michal Neuvirth to take the number one job on a full-time basis for the 2012-2013 season. He has just that last step to take to cross the last border, from his apprenticeship in the AHL to a permanent place in the NHL.

Grade: A+