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Braden Holtby making Capitals real Stanley Cup threat

BOSTON -- The Washington Capitals faced a tall order heading into the 2012 postseason. Their opponent, the Boston Bruins, was the defending Stanley Cup champions with reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe trophy winner Tim Thomas between the pipes.

At the other end of the ice, the Capitals were starting a rookie without any NHL playoff experience.

Braden Holtby entered that series having played 21 regular-season NHL games, but due to injuries to both Washington goaltenders -- Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun -- Holtby was recalled from the AHL to start Game 1 against the Bruins.

"That year we wanted to make it hard on him by trying to get a few goals early on and kind of get into his head and get into his confidence, but he's poised and the way he carried himself that whole series was pretty impressive," said Bruins center Patrice Bergeron. "He's a great goaltender, and from that series on, he's gotten better every year. He's a terrific player and goaltender and we have a lot of respect for him."

Holtby played that entire series and the Capitals defeated the Bruins in seven games. At 22 years old, Holtby allowed only 15 goals and posted a .940 save percentage. He played like he had nothing to lose.

Entering Tuesday's game against the Bruins at TD Garden, the Capitals are the runaway leaders in the Eastern Conference and competing with the Dallas Stars for the Presidents' Trophy for the overall league lead.

And Holtby has been carrying the load the most of the way. After leading the league with 73 games played in 2014-15, he's already played 31 of 39 games this season.

"I like to play a lot," Holtby said. "I like to practice every day. It's just my nature; that's the way I enjoy hockey, by doing it every day. Endurance, there's a certain part that you can control by taking care of yourself, preparing yourself as best you can mentally, but at the same time there's a lot that goes into it too. I'm just trying to enjoy every game I play until they tell me I can't."

Still, Capitals coach Barry Trotz is not concerned with Holtby's workload.

"Not at all," Trotz said. "Actually, we were talking, and he's not getting enough work because we had days off. I'm not concerned at all. The more he plays, the better he feels. He doesn't like days off, and if I give him a day off, he'll be out there for two hours, taking 1,000 pucks rather than maybe 100 pucks. The workload is not an issue with him."

Holtby, 26, has a 16-0-2 record -- including two shutouts -- in his past 19 games, with a 1.87 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage. His 18-game point streak is the longest by a Capitals goaltender since Jose Theodore's franchise-record 23-game point streak during the 2009-10 season. Holtby currently leads the NHL in wins (24) and ranks second with a 1.92 goals-against average.

"The last couple of years we didn't have the kind of goalie who can win the game for us if we didn't play well," said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. "He's played outstanding and he's given us a chance. He's been unbelievable and I hope he'll continue to do what he's done. His work ethic after practice is very high. He's tremendous right now."

Holtby's aggressiveness, talent and work ethic is a major reason the Capitals are the top Stanley Cup contender. But if history has taught fans anything, regular-season success does not necessarily continue into the playoffs.

Since his postseason debut, Holtby has played 34 playoff games and has a 16-18 record. He showed his poise to perform at a high level against the Bruins in the spring of 2012, and it was that series that helped give him the confidence to develop into the goalie he is today.

"It seems like a long time ago now, but it was fun," Holtby said. "It was probably, maybe because it was my first [playoff series], but it was an extremely fun series to be a part of."

Bruins coach Claude Julien remembered how that series launched Holtby's career.

"It wasn't just a fluke," Julien said. "It was the start of him being a great goaltender, and he is. He's done well for them.

"I give him a lot of credit. From what I can see from the outside, he looks like a very focused individual and he seems like a very determined athlete. I'm not afraid to give him a lot of credit because I think he's a guy you have to admire for how he's handled himself."