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CAPITALS: Reliable, Composed, Braden Holtby Plays Big Against Bruins

By ZAC BOYER | | @ZacBoyer

ARLINGTON – When Semyon Varlamov came from obscurity to lead the Washington Capitals through the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2009, then-coach Bruce Boudreau didn’t want to have anything to do with the goaltender.

Sure, he acknowledged him – but only when he needed to. Superstitions can be a funny thing, and Boudreau was perfectly content letting Varlamov, a young rookie who played in just six games during the regular season, do his own thing.

Dale Hunter, now the Capitals’ head coach, is finding himself in a similar position with Braden Holtby. The 22-year-old rookie has stopped 72 of 74 shots against Boston, and as the teams’ first-round series moves to Washington tonight, Holtby will enter with the lowest goals-against average (0.83) and highest save percentage (.973) amongst all postseason goalies.

Hunter, though, may be a little bit more reasonable with his treatment than his predecessor was.

“It’s one of those things where superstition – it’s there,” the coach said Sunday. “It’s always been in the game, but I’ll keep it the same.”

For his part, Holtby, too, has remained the same. His teammates routinely praised him over the final month of the season for stepping up with Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, the top two goalies, out because of injury.

And after allowing only one goal in a double-overtime, 2-1 road victory in Game 2 on Saturday – one in which Holtby was on the ice for all 82 minutes, 56 seconds – the accolades have only increased.

The Bruins’ Tim Thomas, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and last year’s recipient of the Conn Smythe Trophy, figured to be the goalie to watch in the series. That status could be changing.

“Obviously there’s a lot of talk of the first two games with low scoring, especially with goaltending,” Holtby said. “My game really didn’t change too much. It was basically the way we played [and] the way the game was played as a whole as to why I was successful. I want to work on some things. I want to be better and to get better throughout the series. Right now, all the focus is on Game 3.”

Holtby made 29 saves in the 1-0 overtime loss Thursday, including an incredible sequence midway through the second period where he stopped Rich Peverly’s point-blank sweep with his right leg, watched as Jay Beagle blocked Dennis Seidenberg’s rebound and then took Patrice Bergeron’s try off his chest, all on a 4-on-3 Bruins power play.

He returned to make 43 saves Saturday, many more in spectacular fashion. Left all alone with six minutes left in the first period, Holtby stepped in front of Andrew Marchand’s one-timer from Bergeron, denying the opportunity, and later, early in the second, he was able to get his right skate on Bergeron’s power play try, barely knocking the puck wide of the left post.

Through all, Holtby has kept his composure.

“He just looks like a kid that’s having fun playing the game,” Brooks Laich said. “I mean, in his shoes, you’re in Hershey most of the year and now you come up [from the minor leagues] and you have a chance to play in the NHL playoffs. I mean, he’s licking his chops. He’s pretty excited to be in there.”

Dany Sabourin spent much of the year as Holtby’s backup in Hershey and is with the Capitals now with Vokoun and Neuvirth hurt. In watching Holtby’s demeanor in the last two games – and even in the regular-season finale April 7 on the road against the New York Rangers – Sabourin said nothing has changed.

“After the game, I think he’s going to be rattled, just like anyone else, but the next day he comes back to the rink with a smile and it’s a new day,” Sabourin said. “I think that’s the right way to approach it. You want to learn from it, but at the same time, you want to shake it off, and I’ve seen him do that time and time again.”

The Capitals traded Varlamov to Colorado last offseason, and for a time, it appeared as though Holtby and Neuvirth would battle to be the team’s two goalies. Vokoun, the proven veteran, was later signed to be the starter, sending Holtby back into limbo between the two levels.

Vokoun, though, hasn’t skated since aggravating a groin injury March 29 against the Bruins. Neuvirth sustained an undisclosed left leg injury April 5 against Florida. That leaves Holtby as the Capitals’ main guy for the foreseeable future – and even if Neuvirth, on the ice Sunday, becomes available, Hunter said the rookie “is our goalie.”

“He’s playing. He’s battling,” Hunter said. “He’s going out there, he’s got confidence and he’s playing hard. Both goalies are playing well at both ends, and to score a goal, you’re gonna have to earn a goal.”


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