Braden Holtby won't be intimidated
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Twirling the stick, watching the droplets shot from a water bottle, shuffling around the top of the crease, that thing where his eyes track back and forth looking out on an empty ice surface. Braden Holtby's quirky habits might make good television, but not everyone loves to watch them.
Old-school Washington Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior despairs that a whole generation of young goaltenders will see these now-familiar routines and think that they have something to do with Holtby's astounding success. They don't, and Prior jokes that he and other goaltending coaches will have to clean up the mess.
As much as these routines are inexorably linked to Holtby, they are merely window dressing that in some ways obfuscates the real story: Holtby's improbable assault on the NHL record books.
On Saturday, Holtby has a chance to join that rarefied company when the Capitals travel to New York to play the Rangers with a berth in the Eastern Conference finals hanging in the balance.
In some ways, Holtby has been found money.
Prior is candid in saying he felt that Michal Neuvirth gave the Capitals the best shot at success as the playoffs approached. The sophomore netminder was Washington's goaltender of record in last season's playoffs and had an incredible run of playoff success with the AHL's Hershey Bears.
But an injury to Neuvirth opened the door to Holtby -- someone who had never won a playoff series at any meaningful level of hockey -- and he has responded by spinning one of the most compelling stories of the playoffs.
Having dispatched the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and the defending Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, Holtby now aims to take down current Vezina Trophy nominee Henrik Lundqvist, all without so much as arching an eyebrow.
"Are you kidding me?" said former NHL netminder Glenn Healy, now a national broadcast analyst. "That's intimidating when you look 200 feet down the ice and there's a legend there."
But if there has been a hint of intimidation, Holtby has not revealed it in any meaningful way. Holtby and the Caps have yet to lose back-to-back games this postseason. He has faced more shots than any other goaltender in the playoffs and has turned in a sparkling 1.95 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.
The 22-year-old also celebrated the birth of his first child, Benjamin Hunter Holtby, on Thursday. (The middle name is Holtby's mother's maiden name, not for Capitals coach Dale Hunter.)
Not so much.
"I just think he's playing in the moment. He's not looking in the past, he's not looking too far ahead," said Olie Kolzig, a longtime Capitals netminder who is now a Caps goaltending coach.
"His calmness. Earlier in the season when I was down in Hershey, there'd be times when he'd get frustrated; you could visibly see he was more frustrated. It's tough to tell now."
The Capitals might work their goaltenders harder than any other team in the NHL. With Prior and Kolzig, there is no room for ego or superstition.
Before Game 6 against the Rangers, with the Capitals trailing in the series 3-2, Prior approached Holtby and asked whether he was superstitious.
"No," Holtby replied.
"Good, because this is your 13th playoff game, so let's see what happens," Prior informed him.
Holtby stopped 30 of 31 shots as the Capitals moved to their second straight Game 7 this spring.
The television cameras have loved Holtby and his method of preparing for games or responding to goals, although Prior and Kolzig are only just tolerant of the habits.
Sometimes Prior will interrupt Holtby in the midst of his routine as a way of reinforcing that the routines, however helpful, are not the central factor in Holtby's success.
"I think when I first started working with Dave especially, I've always tried to steer clear of the word 'superstitions' because I never really viewed them as superstitions," Holtby told ESPN.com on Friday.
"But the more I did things it was because I thought they were helping my game in order to play the best that I had. ... I think I took it a little far in some aspects with having to do things at the same time and everything. Now it's basically doing the things I feel that they get my mind ready," said Holtby, who grew up on his family's farm outside Lloydminster, Saskatchewan.
"The main thing that usually gets misinterpreted is usually superstitions I view are things like you have to tape your stick at exactly the same time and the same way. That has nothing to do with you playing the game. A lot of the stuff that I do has to do with preparing my mind, especially preparing my reactions, my eyes to be ready for the game. It's not like I have to do things at a certain time every time. It's just a few things that I felt along the way that I felt helped my mind prepare for the game."
Healy gets it, even if it's not something he would have embraced as a netminder.
"It takes all the thinking away" and allows him to focus on the immediate task of stopping pucks, Healy said.
"It all follows a system. It does lead to consistency. He goes right back to his habits. To me it would [be] exhausting to prepare the [way] he does because he's doing a lot of different stuff."
Does he have his flaws? Sure. He's 22 years old, Healy added, citing rebound control as one of those flaws.
But the Capitals have played like demons in front of Holtby, so if there are mistakes, they have not proved to be critical yet.
Holtby, like all the team's young goaltenders, had to learn to do it the Prior way, which means adding a healthy dose of patience to the equation. That's not always easy to do, especially with young netminders, whose first response is often to rely almost exclusively on athletic ability and to challenge shooters.
"When you're trying to elevate your game to playing in the NHL, that's not good enough," Prior said. "There are too many good shooters."
There is a line that Prior draws from patience to structure to consistency, something Holtby initially struggled with.
"It has been [a challenge]," Holtby said. "With my personality it's always been kind of to do things, always wanted to take things in my own hands.
"Goaltending is a position really unlike anything in sports. You have to let things come to you."
That is at the core of what Prior teaches: stay patient and make the shooter blink first.
"A good shooter will take advantage of your lack of patience," Prior said. "We don't try to make the saves, we try to make the shooters beat us. We're keeping the pressure on the shooter to beat us with a great shot. The foundation to our philosophy of defending the goal is that patience."
Whether the water bottle or the eye-tracking or the spinning of the stick has anything to do with the rapid evolution of Holtby's game at this stage is, frankly, moot.
But rest assured, no one is going to be rocking the Holtby boat, even if it means more work for guys like Prior down the road.