ARLINGTON, Va. -- Eighteen days ago, then-Hershey Bears goalie Braden Holtby allowed five goals and was pulled in the third period of a 6-1 loss to the St. John’s IceCaps.
Tuesday night, the recently recalled 22-year-old will start in the biggest game of the Washington Capitals season. The Caps play host to the Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center with the teams tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference and six games to play.
"I'm pretty excited for it," Holtby said. "It's a big game, but at the same time it's just another one. It counts as two points, just the same as all the others do. I'm ready to go into it with that mindset, but there will be a little extra motivation to have the team going and get a win."
While former Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller will appear in his 57th game of the year for the Sabres, this will be Holtby’s fifth NHL start this season for the Caps. No pressure, kid.
"I've always been confident in my ability to be an NHL goaltender," said Holtby, who is 2-0-1 since his recall with a 1.29 goals-against average and .955 save percentage.
"Whether it's been some conditioning in Hershey or whatnot, it's been a learning process the last three years and I think I've worked hard with the goalie coaches here to make sure that I would be ready for an opportunity like this."
The Capitals' 2008 fourth-round draft pick had impressive NHL stints last season, going 10-2-2 with a 1.79 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in 14 games, but Holtby had reason to believe that this latest call-up wouldn't last more than a few days.
Holtby was so sure that this NHL stay would be brief that he left his car at the daily parking lot at the Harrisburg International Airport. At $20 a day, "it’s collecting a pretty big paycheck there right now."
"It's funny, actually," he said. "I got told Saturday night [March 17] -- we were playing in Hershey -- to go up Sunday morning. And I was basically told, 'See you at the start of the week.' Basically, just go [to Washington] for a couple of days."
A couple of days have now turned into a couple of weeks and with Tomas Vokoun still sidelined because of a nagging groin injury, Michal Neuvirth, 24, and Holtby, 22, could play a major role in the Caps springtime fate.
"As for carrying the team into the playoffs, I really don't know how to answer that because I'm focusing on [this] game," Holtby said. "After this game I'm not sure what will be in store. I'd love to, that's the goal, obviously, for anyone."
Here is Washington's projected lineup for the game against the Sabres.
Alex Ovechkin - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Jay Beagle - Mike Knuble
Keith Aucoin - Marcus Johansson
Karl Alzner - Dennis Wideman
Roman Hamrlik - Mike Green
Dmitry Orlov - John Carlson
Notes: Capitals coach Dale Hunter is expected to dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen for the second straight game. With only 11 forwards in a 3-0 win Sunday against Minnesota, Alex Ovechkin played 26:19 -- his second highest ice-time of the season.
Nicklas Backstrom joined his teammates for the morning skate, marking the 14th time in the last 15 days that the Caps' No. 1 center has skated. Backstrom has not played since taking an elbow to the head from then-Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque on Jan. 3. The Caps have won 17 of 38 games without Backstrom in the lineup.
Forward Joel Ward will miss his third straight game after taking a Daniel Briere shot off his foot last Thursday in Philadelphia … Jeff Halpern will sit as a healthy scratch for the second straight game and for the seventh time in the last 10 games overall.
Vokoun took part in the skate but is not expected to dress tonight as he continues to recover from his groin injury. The 35-year-old has started just three of the Caps last 16 games dating to Feb. 22.