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Holtby seizing opportunity as Caps' go-to goalie

by Dave Lozo
Braden Holtby's first stint with the Washington Capitals started out with immense promise but ended with major disappointment.

The 21-year-old rookie goaltender stopped all four shots he faced in relief of Semyon Varlamov against the Boston Bruins on Nov. 5. It wasn't exactly the greatest debut in NHL history, but it was a flawless 10:09 for the native of Lloydminster, Saskatoon. Holtby made his first career start two nights later and made 23 saves against the Philadelphia Flyers in a 3-2 overtime victory.

Things took a sharp turn for worse in his next three appearances.

Holtby allowed 11 goals on 55 shots -- including five to the New Jersey Devils when they couldn't buy a goal during the first half of the season -- and was returned to Hershey of the AHL.

It took some hard work with coaches in Hershey and Washington, but Holtby learned that his focus at the NHL level needed some improvement.

"Last time I got a little, I guess you can call it star struck in a way," Holtby said. "But I just didn't focus on playing hockey. It was more just caught up in everything else. I think they helped me to get more accustomed to the style of game up here and making sure that I focused on the little things I need to do in order to be successful. This time I just wanted to prove I could play at this level and help our team out."

Holtby has done more than just help his team out during his most recent call-up. He went 4-0-0 last week with a 1.05 goals-against average and .965 save percentage to earn NHL First Star honors and help the Caps take over the Southeast Division lead and move within one point of the Eastern Conference-leading Flyers.

"It's nice to see that you're getting recognized a bit, but at the same time, it's only one week," Holtby said. "I want to keep going and keep this winning streak going as long as we can."

The Caps have won eight straight, but it looked like the streak was going to end in Tampa, Fla., last Monday when starter Michal Neuvirth had to leave that showdown with the Lightning because small pieces of metal broke off from his mask and became embedded in his eye.

Holtby, who was just called up to replace an injured Varlamov for the game, was pressed into action. Holtby made 21 saves over the final two periods and overtime, then stopped all three shots he faced in the shootout to give the Caps a 2-1 win.

Holtby followed that performance with a 22-save shutout against the Edmonton Oilers and a 40-save effort against the Carolina Hurricanes in a 2-1 victory.

Things didn't go as smoothly against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday afternoon. Holtby allowed a bad-angle goal to Tomas Kopecky and gave up the tying goal in the final seconds before the Caps squeezed out a 4-3 win in overtime.

It wasn't Holtby's best performance, but he was happy to prove he can still find a way to win when he's not at the top of his game.

"It's a long season and you're not going to have your best game everyday. You're not going to feel on top of your game every day," said Holtby, who has an impressive 8-2-2 mark with a 1.95 GAA and .931 save percentage this season. "One thing I really learned when I'm called up here, and even in Hershey, is that trying to figure out a way to be consistent every game and make sure you battle through those in a way that you get yourself in the same mindset you are when you're feeling good. It's probably the toughest thing to do on those days when you're not feeling really at the top of your game."

Known as a great stickhandler, Holtby got into some trouble while playing the puck against the Blackhawks.

"I've practiced it my whole life. I've always enjoyed doing it," Holtby said. "But it's one of those things that I really need to work on a lot. The last few games, I think that's one of the things I didn't feel very comfortable with in my game. There was a couple plays I shouldn't have done and made poor decisions on. I know I'm capable of helping out my defensemen in that aspect, but it's just a matter if I can learn from my mistakes and make sure I can fine tune it."

Holtby's success can't be considered unexpected, but it was certainly a long shot to happen this season with the Caps, who have been touting 22-year-olds Varlamov and Neuvirth as their goaltenders of the future. It's one thing to toil in the ECHL with the South Carolina Stingrays or in the AHL with Hershey when there's an aging veteran or a goalie with an expiring contract no the big club.

But with a logjam of young goaltenders ahead of him who don't seem to be going anywhere, it must have seemed like a major roadblock to the NHL.

"I guess it does," Holtby said. "It probably plays into everyone's mind when they're in the minors, if they're going to get their shot. At the same time, I've always been a firm believer that if you're good enough to play at a level of the NHL, you'll get that shot. You don't see many guys that go through their career with NHL skills that don't get an opportunity. I was just trying to prove myself in Hershey and make sure that if I do get an opportunity, I'd be ready to give it my best shot.

"I’m not taking this time for granted up here. You look at guys like (Vancouver's) Cory Schneider -- he really had to put in his time in the minors because he’s stuck behind a guy like (Roberto) Luongo. When you see a guy like that who is playing so well in the minors and not getting his shot, you take these opportunities and make the best of them."

Holtby has parlayed this recent chance that only came his way because of injuries to Varlamov and Neuvirth into an opportunity to start for one of the League's best teams during the stretch run. Neuvirth is ready to return to action, but coach Bruce Boudreau has been riding the hot Holtby.

Despite his recent run of success, Holtby isn't getting too far ahead of himself and thinking about the playoffs.

"You don’t really think about it too much," Holtby said. "Especially in my situation, I'm just trying to take every game I get to improve and make sure I can build on the game before and keep learning. We'll see. I think we'll be confident in whoever the coaching staff decides on. I'm just hoping I can make my stay last up here and get a few more games and keep this winning streak going."

If Boudreau sticks with Holtby, that chance could come Tuesday in Montreal.

"They’re really not making it easy on me," Boudreau said. "I’m not trying to be aloof here, but (Varlamov) was going great and then he gets hurt. (Neuvirth) was going great and then he gets hurt. Holtby’s going great now and it is getting close to decision time. Obviously I’m going to talk to a few other people before (making the decision)."

"It's been a pretty fun ride so far," Holtby said.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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