NHL

Washington Capitals Braden Holtby: From Call-Up to King of the Crease

Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) blocks a shot by Buffalo Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Washington. The Washington Capitals won 5-2. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

We can picture Washington Capitals starter Braden Holtby without thinking twice about it. He stands tall in net, with long hair, a huge beard and a beast mentality game in and game out. That was different from what we saw four years ago, when an injury to Michal Neuvirth in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs led to an emergency call-up for Holtby.

What we saw back then was a lanky call-up from the Bears who sported Hershey-colored pads and a mask decorated with a roller-coaster riding bear. He had big green eyes full of hope, and a pregame ritual that still holds strong today, which includes a variety of skating around the crease, squirting water bottles and shuffling his feet.

It was a true underdog story; he immediately named a playoff starter for the struggling Capitals who barely made the cut, and he was facing the second seed Bruins. However, he put up more than just saves; he put up a brick wall. After a star-studded performance in net, Joel Ward‘s overtime heroics ended the seven-game series, and the Caps advanced to the second round against the Rangers. The team would fall in seven games, but Holtby’s stunning performance would not be forgotten.

Holtby was difference maker and the team’s MVP, and after seeing his campaign, many fans bought shirts and jerseys bearing #70 and called for his permanent stay with the Capitals, which came true in 2012-13.

He was competing for a starting spot with Czech goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who reportedly told Czech newspapers that Holtby would be easy competition and no threat to him at all.

After two seasons of hardship battling the likes of Neuvirth (and deadline-acquired Jaroslav Halak in March 2014), the Capitals failed to make the playoffs in 2013-14 campaign. Holtby’s confidence was declining, and it wasn’t until a front office clean-out and a new coaching staff that the organization realized Holtby’s potential.

He was officially named the starter in the 2014-15 season, and after putting up amazing numbers, he regained his confidence. He won 41 of 73 starts and finished the season with a 2.22 GAA and .922 save percentage, while helping the team return to the playoffs. His hard work earned him a huge extension which pays $8 million a season.

“The things I used to harp on, I don’t even have to mention anymore,” Capitals goalie coach Mitch Korn said. “He’s really made great adjustments that give him a chance whether he’s on or not on on a given night to have success.”

This season Holtby is on track to become a Vezina candidate and leads the league with 24 wins. He sits on two other leaderboards and is putting up career statistics. Overall, it has been amazing to watch Holtby transition from a call-up goalie to one of the NHL’s most elite netminders is phenomenal.

“You’ve got to see what is possible; you can’t set the goals way too high just because you need to keep proving something to everyone,” Holtby said of his success. “You figure at where you are professionally and keep pushing those little bits further. From last year, I know there’s a lot of places I can improve, but there’s a lot of places where we took strides froward.”

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