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Capitals' Holtby has evolved into top-tier goaltender

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- Braden Holtby was named to the NHL All-Star Game for the first time in his career Wednesday, an obvious decision midway through a season that has the Washington Capitals No. 1 goalie on pace to better the one that earned Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens the Hart and Vezina trophies last summer.

Unbeaten in regulation for almost two months and on pace to be the first NHL goaltender to win 50 games, Holtby was a no-brainer all-star, even if it meant not having room for Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers on the Metropolitan Division team.

The thing is, Holtby has always been good. He posted a .934 save percentage as a rookie. His .922 career average is tied with Dominik Hasek all-time among goalies that played more than 100 games, ahead of Lundqvist and behind only Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins (.925) and All-Star Game teammate Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils (.926).

Holtby has hit another level this season, however. He leads the NHL in wins with a 25-4-2 record, is on a 17-0-2 run that is the longest stretch by a goalie without a regulation loss in five years, and is tied for second with a 1.93 goals-against average while ranking fourth with a .932 save percentage.

So what changed this season; or perhaps more accurately, over the past two seasons working with new Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn and playing behind the improved defensive structure of Washington's new coach Barry Trotz?

Simply put, Holtby is using his impressive skills more efficiently. He is using his speed and athleticism to get into an optimal position whenever possible, rather than relying on it to make sensational saves as often as he did earlier in his career.

"Mitch has found a way to tighten my game up, create less holes, using athleticism to get into position quicker instead of using it explosively," Holtby told Sportsnet's Hockey Central at Noon on Dec. 28. "That's the one thing we've worked on the most."

It's a process that has involved everything from stopping tiny white pucks to playing goal while holding a medicine ball, an exercise to tighten up both his core and lateral movements that have also been shortened through more conservative positioning. But it is not a process that started with Korn's arrival last season.

Korn is the first to point out Holtby's success prior, including handling top shooters and a big stage when he exploded into the NHL consciousness with dynamic, athletic saves and quirky off-ice rituals while eliminating Tim Thomas and the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the seven games to open the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"This is not an overnight process," Korn told, listing Holtby's past goaltending coaches. "It's like a stew that has been boiling for a long time. All the pieces were in there. Those guys put all of the ingredients into the kettle and I just probably stirred it the last time."

That list of mentors starts with Holtby's father, Greg, a major junior goalie for the Saskatoon Blades in the mid-1980s and later the goalie coach for young Braden, starting in the basement and backyard rinks of the family farm in Marshall, Saskatchewan.

A product of the pre-butterfly era, Greg stressed skating, and those lessons are evident today in Holtby's incredible footwork and speed. His dad also forbade Braden from being just a goalie too soon, forcing him to also play forward until he was 12.

"He really encouraged me to play as a forward and a goaltender until I was forced by the team to make a decision, so I played both up until peewee, which really helped develop my skating, develop my puck handling, all those other things you wouldn't get by choosing to be just a goalie at a really young age," Holtby told in an earlier interview. "I was always confused back then why he wanted me to keep playing both when all I really wanted to be was a goaltender. Now it's one of my biggest benefits."

Greg Holtby was also smart enough to recognize when the student had surpassed the teacher, so when Braden was 16 he sought out a more modern approach to the fast-evolving position and sent his son to work with Blades goalie coach John Stevenson.

The father-son duo learned modern techniques side-by-side with Stevenson, who now focuses on the mental side and vision training through his Alberta-based Zone Performance Psychology. The off-ice techniques Stevenson implemented are still a big part of Holtby's preparation today, whether it's squirting his water bottle into the air during breaks and trying to focus on a single drop, or darting his eyes around the rink while standing perfectly still at the bench before games.

They were also a big part of Holtby's evolution from a short-tempered, stick-breaking goalie that struggled to control his emotions his first two seasons behind a bad, rebuilding Blades team in junior, to the never-fazed, almost Zen-like goaltender of today.

Holtby's evolution continued as a pro, first with long-time Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior, then Arturs Irbe and Olie Kolzig. Each added pieces as Holtby transitioned away from relying too much on the athleticism that once defined him as a goalie.

Consider how Holtby described that transition to going into his first full NHL season in 2012-13: "It's always going to be a work in progress for me because when I struggle my first fallback is onto my athleticism. And getting to a point where if I struggle I fall back on my technique is one thing I am really trying to work on."

A little more than three years later, it sounds like Holtby has reached that point.

He's learned having good hands doesn't mean having to rely on them; that a puck will never go through a belly button but it can go under a waving arm. He's learned beating a rush pass on his skates still allows him to go into full splits if needed, but sliding across in full splits leaves him at the mercy of the shooter.

"He understands the difference between normal, urgent and desperate," Korn said. "He understands all three have different responses required from the goalie, and if you only need normal but you go to desperate, you are putting yourself in a bad spot."

Holtby isn't putting himself into those bad spots very often anymore.

For him it's a new normal, and it has a lot less desperation.

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