NHL on NBCSN: It’s Braden Holtby’s time of year

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

From the moment he arrived in the NHL, Braden Holtby has been one of the best goalies in the league and he has all of the hardware to prove it. For as good as he has consistently been in the regular season throughout his career (where he has won the Vezina Trophy once and finished in the top-five two other times, including once as a runner-up), his game has always elevated to another level come playoff time.

With the Capitals looking to secure another spot in the postseason on Tuesday night when they face the Carolina Hurricanes, we are starting to get closer to Holtby’s time of year.

How good has he been in the playoffs? Of the 74 goalies in NHL history that have appeared in at least 40 postseason games, only Tim Thomas has a higher save percentage than Holtby’s .929. But because the Capitals would always be on the short end of the stick come playoff time, often because they would just happen to run into a goalie at the other end of the ice that would play the series of their life for seven games, Holtby would never really get the respect he was always due for his postseason dominance because he never had the ring to back it up.

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That all changed in 2017-18 when he helped backstop the Capitals to their first ever Stanley Cup with another sensational postseason performance. What was fascinating about that one was that because he had an uncharacteristically down regular season, and struggled at times down the stretch, he did not even start the postseason as the Capitals’ No. 1 goalie. It wasn’t until the team faced a 2-0 series deficit in round one against the Columbus Blue Jackets. that then-head coach Barry Trotz went back to him.

It proved to be a season-saving decision.

Fast forward to this season and when you look at the overall numbers for Holtby he is performing at nearly the same level that he did throughout the 2017-18 season. The numbers are almost identical.

2017-18: 54 starts, .914 even-strength save percentage, .907 all situations save percentage
2018-19: 54 starts, .920 even-strength save percentage, .909 all situations save percentage

The only difference this season is that Holtby is starting to trend up a little sooner than he did a year ago with, entering Tuesday’s game with a .914 save percentage of his past 20 starts over the past two months.

The trade deadline additions of Nick Jensen and Carl Hagelin have helped improve the Capitals’ overall play and defensive performance, but they are still a middle of the pack to slightly below average team when it comes to their possession numbers and ability to cut down on chances and shots against. That can be a problem, especially if they lose Michal Kempny for an extended period of time (as it appears that they will).

Normally that is not a great sign for success in the postseason, but they were able to overcome it a year ago because they have superstar forwards that can outscore anyone on any given night, and because Holtby dominated when they needed him most.

If they are going to make another deep run in the playoffs and go for a repeat as Stanley Cup Champions they are going to need a similar type effort from Holtby.

History shows he is capable of doing it, and his performance over the past two months seem to indicate he is approaching that level that this season.

John Forslund (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.