Heading into this season, Braden Holtby‘s calling card was consistency. Maybe he didn’t churn out the absolute best campaign every time, but in winning at least 41 games and generating at least a .923 save percentage from 2014-15 to 2016-17, Holtby put in elite work like clockwork for the Washington Capitals.
The 2017-18 season, meanwhile, has been more like a roller coaster ride.
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The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division once again, but sometimes that success came despite Holtby. He managed 34 wins, yet Holtby struggled with a backup-level .907 save percentage, confessing to fatigue when things really slipped.
Things hit their lowest point toward the end of 2017-18, as impressive backup Philipp Grubauer outright won the Capitals’ starting job, suiting up as the top goalie for Washington’s first two playoff games against Columbus. Of course, both of those games ended in losses, and ultimately opened the door for Holtby to redeem himself.
So far, Holtby’s done more than that. Rather than merely grabbing the starting job, the 28-year-old is looking a lot like the elite goalie we’ve almost come to expect in a time when goalie output can be downright erratic.
Holtby stepped in for Grubauer in Game 2, giving up a goal on eight shots as the Blue Jackets won 5-4 in overtime. Things have picked up since Holtby was in net from the start, which really makes sense since the Capitals netminder is known for his focus.
The Capitals won three straight games to take their current 3-2 series lead, and Holtby’s been outstanding, holding up to the pressure of having little room for error. Two of the past three wins have been in overtime, while only one of Holtby’s appearances didn’t involve a game going beyond regulation (five of the series’ six games hit OT overall).
So far through four games and three starts, Holtby’s stopped 102 out of 109 shots for a splendid save percentage of .936.
Maybe the standout moments came during the third period of Game 5. While a deft Oliver Bjorkstrand deflection eluded Holtby early on in the third, Holtby was the reason Washington was able to survive into overtime, as the Blue Jackets generated an absurd 16-1 shots on goal advantage during that span.
It’s easy to consider the Capitals’ history of playoff disappointments and assume that Holtby’s failed to convert regular season brilliance to strong postseason goaltending, yet Holtby’s long been a dependable presence when the games matter the most.
Despite a 32-31 career playoff record, Holtby’s given the Capitals a chance to win on most nights, sporting a fantastic .932 save percentage so far during his playoff career. That’s the best mark for goalies who’ve played in at least 30 postseason games since 2011-12, and the gap widens when you zoom out to netminders who’ve played in at least 50 during that same span.
Playing at such a high level clearly takes its toll, and you wonder if recent setbacks might serve as a blessing in disguise for Holtby.
Most directly, he got a breather down the stretch, which is significant considering the workload he’s carried the past few seasons.
Beyond that, watching playoff games from the bench had to light a fire under him, possibly reminding him of the earlier days of his career when little was certain. After all, Holtby had to earn his spot as a fourth-round pick (93rd overall in 2008).
Goalies might be creatures of habit who prefer getting the most reps and knowing when their starts are coming, but perhaps it’s human nature to fall into a routine and not be at your very best, particularly when you’re serving as a workhorse goalie.
Whatever the case may be, Holtby’s playing some of his best hockey, and that’s making the Capitals a tough team to beat. If the Blue Jackets want to avoid elimination tonight, they’ll need to get the best of Holtby. That appears to be a far tougher task in April than it seemed to be mere months ago.
Game 6 airs on CNBC at 7:30 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.