WASHINGTON -- The roller coaster painted on Braden Holtby's goalie mask is a tribute to one of the rides at the Hershey Park amusement park in central Pennsylvania.
" It's just a Hershey thing," the Washington Capitals' rookie goalie explained. "When I had to get my mask painted [in the offseason], I knew I was going to be playing in Hershey [with the Caps' AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears] for the better part of the year, so I thought it was something creative to represent Hershey."
Eight months later, the roller coaster is a symbol of the wild and crazy ride this season has been for the 22-year-old, who has gone from training camp afterthought to one of the best goalies of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Holtby's career-high 44 saves in a 2-1 win Thursday night pulled the Capitals even with the Boston Bruins at two victories apiece in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series. His 1.60 goals-against-average and .953 save percentage are tops among goalies with at least three starts in this year's playoffs.
"When you have a goaltender that smothers everything that's thrown his way, it's very calming to the rest of your team," said forward Brooks Laich, who also called Holtby "a stud" after the Game 4 win.
"If we give up a shot, we know [Holtby] is going to cover it. … When you have a goaltender that's on top of his game, it really, really settles your team down. He was a leader for us tonight."
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Added defenseman Karl Alzner: "I think the best part about it is he makes a great glove save and drops the puck and leans on his post. He makes it look so easy. I think it's got to be very tough on a player when a goalie can make it look as easy as he does."
Holtby's 44 saves in Game 4 were the most by a rookie in a regulation playoff game since Ken Dryden of the Montreal Canadiens stopped 46 shots in a 4-2 win against Boston on April 16, 1971.
Off the ice, Holtby is a soft-spoken but confident kid who doesn't seem fazed by the big stage and bright lights on the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While Holtby entered the postseason with only 16 games of playoff experience from the AHL and Western Hockey League combined, his successful NHL playoff debut hasn't surprised those around him.
"Coming into this, we knew and Braden knew that at the top of his game, he can win in this League," Caps goaltending coach Dave Prior told NHL.com. "Any goaltender will tell you that it's a lot harder to come into this League and to play well for years than it is to play well for just a stint that's a real up in your life. So we knew it was well within his ability."
Long before Holtby would have even been tall enough to ride the rollercoaster at Hershey Park, the Lloydminster, Sask., native was already dreaming big.
Looking to follow in the footsteps of his father Greg, a goalie who played two years with the WHL's Saskatoon Blades in the mid-1980s, Braden was strapping on the pads in his family's basement by the age of 3.
"I always wanted to be like dad," Holtby said. "He always tried to push that I ultimately make the decision on my own but I personally always liked being where all the action is- in all sports- so choosing to be a goalie was easy."
Like his father, Braden played with the Saskatoon Blades, for whom he went 82-75-15 from 2006-09. The Capitals selected him in the fourth round (No. 93) of the 2008 NHL Draft.
"I think it's a big help to young goalies," Prior said of having a parent who played the position. "You're dealing with a parent that understands what the pressures are and what the goalie is going through. Even if they're not technically equipped to help their son or daughter, it's someone who just gets it. … The relationship that they have I think has been helpful for Braden -- his father is also a friend and certainly played a role coaching him growing up."
After 1 1/2 solid seasons in the minors, mostly in Hershey, Holtby made his NHL debut midway through last season, going 10-2-2 with a 1.79 GAA and .934 save percentage in 14 appearances with the Capitals. Given the success he had also enjoyed in the AHL it was hard to blame Holtby for thinking he deserved a shot as an NHL starter.
It looked like he'd get that chance after the Capitals traded Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche on July 1. But one day later, general manager George McPhee surprised many when he signed veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun to a one-year $1.5 million deal. With Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth both signed to one-way deals, Holtby was destined for another season in Hershey.
"Obviously it was bit of a stressful week, the [start] of free agency," Holtby said in September. "But you know, that happens, that's the business.
"I really had no idea what they were going to do coming into [free agency], but I kind of expected if they moved [Varlamov] they might go after a veteran guy -- I wasn't real sure- so it wasn't too much of a shock."
Holtby, who went 17-10-2 with a 2.29 GAA at Hershey in 2010-11, struggled to regain his form after returning to the Bears this season. His lowest point may have come during a 6-1 loss in St. John's on March 8 during which he was pulled after allowing five goals on 29 shots. Little did Holtby know that it would be his final game of the season with the Bears -- he was recalled by the Capitals one week later and told it would be a short stay as Vokoun battled a groin injury.
Five weeks later, Vokoun and Neuvirth are hurt and Holtby is still here, having carried the Capitals into the postseason and establishing himself as their go-to-guy.