What’s next for Braden Holtby?

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At the end of the day, the Washington Capitals were once again denied entrance to the Conference Finals. That’s become a recurring theme in the Alex Ovechkin era. Then again, the Capitals can certainly take some positives out of their playoff run because this isn’t just the Ovechkin era anymore.

While Ovechkin’s contributions shouldn’t be overlooked despite his diminished offensive output in recent years, the story of the Capitals’ 2012 playoff run was Braden Holtby. Washington was great defensively, but they also relied heavily on Holtby to keep them competitive in their low-scoring games. He only had 21 NHL contests worth of experiencing going into the playoffs, but he rose to the occasion.

“You gotta give him credit,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. “He played under extreme pressure. He had to go up against [Tim] Thomas, a Stanley Cup winner and [Henrik] Lundqvist, who could be MVP of the league. He battled them tooth and nail. I’m proud of him.”

So the question now is if Holtby’s impressive run was simply a matter of a goaltender getting hot at the right time or if he’s the real deal. It is worth noting that even before this season began, he was a highly regarded prospect. In fact, he might have ended up winning the starting job a lot sooner if the Capitals didn’t sign Tomas Vokoun to a one-year deal before the start of the 2011-12 campaign.

Vokoun will probably leave Washington and the Capitals will almost certainly start 2012-13 with Holtby and Michal Neuvirth competing for playing time. That’s a potentially dangerous proposition because either goaltender might benefit from having a veteran backup to both take some of the pressure off and offer some guidance along the way, but both Holtby and Neuvirth deserve to be playing at this level.

Young goaltenders are, as a group, unreliable. Even Cam Ward, who won a the Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes as a rookie, suffered a sophomore slump. Holtby might similarly have rough patches in 2012-13, but regardless of what happens next season, he could have a long and prosperous career in Washington.