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Caps express faith in Holtby ahead of Game 1 start

by Ben Raby /

ARLINGTON, Va. -- When Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee signed free agent goalie Tomas Vokoun last summer, the Caps were thought to have found the goalie who would lead them on a deep playoff run.

And if for whatever reason Vokoun could not start the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Caps had a perfectly capable backup in Michal Neuvirth, who started all nine of their playoff games a year ago.

But when the Capitals took the ice Monday for their first practice ahead of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, they did so with the goaltending tandem of Braden Holtby and Dany Sabourin.

Vokoun remains sidelined with a groin injury while Neuvirth continues to recover from a lower-body injury. There is no timetable for either goalie's return, although Neuvirth appears closer.

Between them, Holtby and Sabourin have a combined 14 minutes of NHL playoff experience (Sabourin played those minutes in relief of Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo in 2007). At the other end of the ice, the Capitals will face the reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy winner in Tim Thomas.

"It took us three goaltenders to get to the playoffs," McPhee said Monday. "We may need three goalies in the playoffs."

Not exactly how the Capitals drew it up in the summer.

"We have no choice. If the other guys aren't ready to go, [Holtby] is playing," McPhee said. "He can handle it. We've had other goalies do it that were the same age or younger."


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In 2009, then 20-year-old Semyon Varlamov started 13 playoff games for the Caps after appearing in just six games in the regular season. Three years later, Holtby, 22, is likely Washington's Game 1 starter after starting just six times in the regular-season (4-2-1, 2.50 goals-against-average, .922 save percentage in seven total appearances).

"I'm confident in my abilities and I'm not trying to focus on the playoffs. I'm just focusing on making saves," Holtby said. "The saves don't get any harder in the playoffs. I've been watching [the playoffs] since I was kid and it's the same type of shots … obviously it's a bit more intense, but it doesn't change your abilities at all."

Holtby has said all the right things since he was recalled from Hershey of the American Hockey League on March 18, and with the exception of a 5-1 loss against the Buffalo Sabres in which he was pulled after allowing three goals on 18 shots, the magnitude of the position he finds himself in has not overwhelmed the Caps' 2008 fourth-round pick.

But despite his calm demeanor and quiet confidence off the ice, there is also a fiery side to Holtby's game that teammates have come to expect on the ice.

"He's an aggressive goaltender," Brooks Laich said. "He's not just a shot-blocker. I think he plays with a little bit of Tim Thomas in him -- that aggressive style -- that come out and challenge you."

The Capitals expect the physical Bruins to try and disrupt Holtby as much as possible in attempt to throw the inexperienced playoff goalie off his game. But if there is a young goalie who can deal with traffic atop the crease and oncoming net crashers, teammates say Holtby is that guy.

"He's a tough goalie," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "I don't think he has an issue with that and they might be a little surprised on how he can handle it as well. He doesn't take a lot of [nonsense]. I think he'll be just fine. It's up to us to do a good job of making sure we get those guys out of there and not make it fun for them to stand in front of him. If they're hurting every time they leave the front of the net then it's going to be good."

Added Laich: "Every team is going to say that about every goaltender. They want to get in their face and get around them and maybe bump them a little bit, get in his crease just a little bit. … That's going to be every team's game plan against the opposing goaltender. I think Braden, he's a big kid and he's a strong, physical guy. I think he can handle that."

The Capitals may not have a choice but to find out beginning Thursday night in Boston.

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