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Capitals' Holtby makes case for role with Canada

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- There is little debate about who is the face of Canada goaltending.

His name is Carey Price, he plays for the Montreal Canadiens, and he has a shiny gold medal from the 2014 Sochi Olympics sitting at home.

That much is certainly clear, but with the World Cup of Hockey making a return in 2016, Canada's next wave of goaltenders, who will likely need to fight to be Price's backup, could be the source of great debate. However, an argument can easily be made that as of now the man sitting in the pole position for that job would be Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals.

Holtby and Price put on a goaltending clinic at Bell Centre on Saturday, with Price gaining the edge in a 1-0 overtime win.

Holtby watched from the other end of the ice as his teammates peppered Price with 17 shots in the second period, including seven on the power play, only to come up empty despite generating a number of high-quality chances.

Holtby was put to a similar test by the Canadiens in the third period, and he was more than up to it. After facing 13 shots in the first two periods combined, Holtby made 15 saves in the third period, including a spectacular glove save in the dying seconds of regulation time on Tomas Plekanec to allow the game to reach overtime and earn the Capitals a point in the standings.

Holtby said he was trying not to pay too much attention to what Price was doing 180 feet away during the second period, but it certainly looked like he took his turn in a game of dueling banjos in the third.

And he nailed it.

"If you ask any goaltender, busy goaltenders are guys that are usually locked in," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "The tough games are the ones when you're not busy. Braden wasn't very busy. I looked up and I think there was something like nine minutes to go in the second period and they had like 10 shots. That was a pretty boring first 30 minutes for him. Those are really hard games when you're watching the other goaltender."

Especially when the other goaltender is playing the way Price was.

Holtby was asked if he gets a little added motivation when he faces a top goaltender; he said he didn't because there are so many around the NHL. But in the case of Price, it's a little different.

"With Carey over there, I think he's a guy that I've looked up to in the past," Holtby said. "He's a very, very elite-level goaltender. When you're in our position you appreciate greatness, and he's obviously great. It's fun to play against guys like that, challenge yourself, and next game we're going to try to make it a different outcome."

Holtby, 25, was one of five goaltenders invited to Canada's Olympic orientation camp in the summer of 2013, along with Price, Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks and the two other goaltenders who ultimately went to Sochi, Roberto Luongo of the Florida Panthers and Mike Smith of the Arizona Coyotes.

Braden Holtby
Goalie - WSH
RECORD: 23-10-9
GAA: 2.22 | SVP: .923
Holtby was the youngest goaltender at the camp, two years younger than Price and five years younger than Crawford. Holtby could have been chosen as Canada's third goaltender in Sochi instead of Smith and no one likely would have considered it a grave injustice; however, looking back now, it's possible he was invited as a nod to the future.

That future is coming in 2016.

Barring injury, there is little possibility that Price will not be Canada's starter in Toronto at the World Cup. But with Luongo turning 36 in April, the path appears clear for Holtby to grab the No. 2 job.

Holtby's save percentage is .923, which would be the best of his NHL career as a starter if he's able to maintain it. His save percentage at even strength is .928, which is top-10 in the NHL among regular goaltenders. The only Canadian goaltender ahead of him prior to Saturday was Steve Mason of the Philadelphia Flyers, with Luongo tied with Holtby at .928 prior to his game with the Panthers.

An argument could be made for Mason, 26, with the numbers he's put up since his trade to the Flyers in April 2013. Jonathan Bernier of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Michael Hutchinson of the Winnipeg Jets and Crawford are in the mix.

But with the way Holtby is playing at an age when goaltenders tend to begin to hit their stride bodes well for his chances in 2016, and for the Capitals' chances in this season's Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Going toe-to-toe with the hottest goalie in the world on Saturday was certainly a testament to that.

"Lately, I saw [Price's] record, I saw the save percentage, I saw all that," Trotz said. "He's locked in, he's playing great hockey, but so is our guy too. [Holtby's] got back-to-back shutouts; obviously you go into overtime you get the overtime loss there. But he's been stellar as well. Both those guys are locked in right now."

Canada can only hope they'll be just as locked in 20 months from now in Toronto.

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