Last season saw a lot of changes in the Washington Capitals organization. They added free agent defencemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, saw superstar captain Alex Ovechkin return to the elite goal scorer he was, winning the Rocket Richard Trophy with 53 goals, 10 more than Steven Stamkos, and they hired on one of the most respected coaches in the NHL in Barry Trotz.
It resulted in a 45-26-11 record during the regular season, 101 points in the Metropolitan Division, and a return to the playoffs after missing in 2013-14. After a seven game victory over the New York Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they were eliminated by the New York Rangers in seven in a conference semifinals.
But out of that season, Washington saw the emergence of goaltender Braden Holtby, who started 73 games for the Capitals, earning a 41-20-10 record. It was a drastic increase in games for the Lloydminster native, who played a combined 98 games between 2010 and 2014, as he went on to become of the elite netminders in the NHL, earning top-5 statistics in most goaltender categories.
“The year before wasn’t what we wanted as an organization, so we made some key changes,” said Holtby. “Changes that not only showed on the ice but also made it more enjoyable and fun for everyone to be around. It was a good year, a good building year. We obviously still have a lot of work to do which we are excited about.”
His 41 victories tied him with Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne for second in the NHL last season, three wins behind Montreal’s Carey Price. His 2.22 goals against average was fifth in the league, while he .923 save percentage ranked him seventh. And with nine shutouts he was tied with Price for second, one behind Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury.
For such a great season Washington rewarded Holtby over the summer with a five-year, $31-million contract extension, making him the seventh highest paid goalie in the league. With high expectations on his pads to help lead the Capitals to the next level and possibly a Stanley Cup Final appearance, Holtby said entering this season it is just like any year, pressure is there, but that goes with the nature of the game.
“Every year is hard and it doesn’t matter if you are pegged to be No. 1 or pegged to be No. 20,” said Holtby. “The league is so close, it just depends on how you do in camp, how you get off at the start. A lot of things go into it. You feel (the pressure) going into training camp, but when you get going you forget about everything because you are busy with games every other day. It flies by and you just try and keep your focus as much as you can.”
As a goaltender, Holtby knows there is a lot riding on him every game he starts in the crease. With only 30 starting goalie positions in the NHL, there isn’t a lot of space around the league for a netminder. Unlike a player who may get hot for a couple of games and score in bunches, Holtby could have one bad game and it can shake the confidence the team has in him. So every game the spotlight is on him to perform to the best of his ability, big contract or not.
“You have one bad game it takes you a month to get over it,” said Holtby. “You year is based on consistency and if you get away from that it changes quick and all of a sudden are at the bottom of the league in goaltending and the team is looking for alternatives. You need to be realistic and focus on every game to try and get the best out of yourself.”
The Capitals open their season at home on Oct. 10 against the New Jersey Devils. Holtby and the Oilers will be in Edmonton to play the Oilers on Oct. 23.