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Holtby keeping focus on present for Capitals, not pending free agency

Goalie 10-0-1 past 11 entering 'Wednesday Night Hockey' game against Rangers

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Braden Holtby was on the ice at MedStar Capitals Iceplex on Tuesday morning, working on his game like he usually does, even though it was an optional practice.

The Washington Capitals goalie is on a roll, going 10-0-1 in his past 11 starts following a brief game reset in mid-October, but he's focusing more on his next challenge than what's behind him. What's next for the Holtby and the Capitals is a "Wednesday Night Hockey" game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS).

"I'm just playing hockey," Holtby said. "We cleaned up a few things. … We're focused on tomorrow. We play the New York Rangers and then we go from there."

That's been an approach that's served Holtby well during his 10 NHL seasons. The 30-year-old made 32 saves in a 5-2 victory against the Anaheim Ducks on Monday for his League-leading 11th win of the season (11-1-3) and his 268th career victory (268-109-43), tying former Capitals goalie Don Beaupre for 49th in NHL history.

Video: Monday's Bridgestone Clutch Performance of the Night

Holtby is the only goalie in the top 50 all-time in wins with fewer than 500 games played (436), and his .615 winning percentage is best among those in the top 50 in wins.

"He's tremendous," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. "He's working hard. Of course everybody has ups and downs, but his game right now is definitely up."

Holtby's most recent down came fewer than two weeks into the season. After allowing four goals in the third period of a 6-5 loss against the Nashville Predators on Oct. 10, Holtby gave up goals on each of the first three shots he faced and was pulled 7:54 into his next start, a 6-3 loss against the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 14.

So the Capitals decided to start rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov in their next game, a 4-3 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 16, to give Holtby two practice days to work with goaltending coach Scott Murray.

Holtby refers to that reset period as "just a point in the season where you work through it," but it turned out to be a pivotal moment for him and the Capitals. At the time, some wondered whether Washington was beginning the process of turning the No. 1 job over to Samsonov, their 22-year-old goalie of the future who was the No. 22 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.

There also were questions about whether Holtby's contract status -- he can become an unrestricted free agent after the season -- might be weighing on him.

Although the mental part of the game can be as important as the physical for goalies, Murray said he and Holtby used that mini-break to make a simple adjustment to his stance.

"It was just something with the way he wanted to set up his body to allow movement to become very easy, which then kind of frees up his instincts, which are elite," Murray said. "It was more his stance. He just got into a more athletic position that allowed him to move very easily and made him feel comfortable with transitioning and anything they threw at him so that his instincts could take over."

Holtby returned to the Capitals net and made 26 saves in a 5-2 win against the Rangers at Capital One Arena on Oct. 18. He's built his game from there, with the only blemish in his past 11 starts a 4-3 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 24.

Video: Holtby and Hart are both going strong in November

During that stretch Holtby has a 2.40 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. Meanwhile, the Capitals (16-3-4) have gone 13-1-2 in their past 16 games to climb to the top of the NHL standings with 36 points (16-3-4).

"If you go back to that day, I said that there was no goaltending controversy and there isn't," Washington coach Todd Reirden said. "[Holtby] is a winner. He's a competitor. He battles. He's not stopping until he figures out a way to improve and it's such a credit to him as a person. Scott Murray does a great job with him. They work well together in terms of coming up with ways to figure out what's going wrong."

Holtby's future beyond this season remains unclear, along with center Nicklas Backstrom, who also can become an unrestricted free agent after the season. They've each done a good job of separating that from their on-ice performance so far, but Holtby acknowledged it's not always easy.

"I think we've done the best we've can to try and limit your thought about it," Holtby said. "Most players have to go through it. It's obviously weird being here for so long to have that thought when you've never had it before, but we have a really good team here right now to do something special and that's the only thing you focus on."

Murray said one of Holtby's strengths is his ability to remain in the present. With the Capitals appearing content to hold off on contract talks until after the season, that's Holtby's best play.

Video: ANA@WSH: Holtby stymies Silfverberg on wrist shot

In the meantime he'll try to help Washington win the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons.

"Just being around him every day, I think he just kind of enjoys what's in front of him, whether it's hanging out with the guys or it's being on the ice," Murray said. "He just kind of lives in the moment that way and he just enjoys what he's doing and tries to maximize what's going on at the present time.

"I think that supersedes what might happen in the future."

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