Capitals’ Holtby refuses to flinch

He doesn’t even flinch.

After shoving Boston Bruins forward Rich Peverley out of his crease and onto the ice in the biggest game of his young life, Braden Holtby stands tall, arms folded, and stares right at Peverley as the frustrated centre picks himself up, rears back his stick and slices the lumber through the Garden air directly at Holtby’s midsection.

Like a poker shark calling some dead money’s bluff, Holtby remains still and confident, glaring at his opponent through his face mask. Peverley checks his swing a couple inches before making contact and folds his hand.

“He’s in beast mode,” Joel Ward, the Washington Capitals Game 7 overtime hero, said of his teammate.

If there is one highlight from the opening-round classic played out between the reigning champs and the suddenly serious seventh seed that best encapsulated the emergence of the Capitals’ rookie netminder it was this moment, not one of his 233 saves — the most pucks stopped by any goaltender thus far in the playoffs.

The scene has, of course, already been turned into a masterful gif.

Red-and-white and green all over, the 22-year-old Holtby has now played the same number of regular-season games as he has postseason games this year in the NHL. That would be seven.

With the first two options on the Capitals’ depth chart, Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, out with injury, third-stringer Holtby was summoned from the AHL’s Hershey Bears. A long shot to outduel the defending Conn Smythe and Vezina winner at the opposite end of the rink, Holtby (.940 save percentage) has been equal parts spectacular and unflappable, besting Tim Thomas in the closest NHL playoff series ever contested. All seven Bruins-Caps games were decided by a single goal, a league first; four of them needed overtime, one needed double.

Frustrating playoff poolies to no end, Holtby shutout Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron all series and held 20-goal-scorers David Krejci, Chris Kelly and Brad Marchand to a single marker each.

If Holtby came into the postseason lacking experience, he is trying to make up for it, leading all NHL players with 449:15 of ice time.

Drafted by Washington 93rd overall in 2008, the Lloydminster, Sask. native made his NHL debut against the Bruins back on Nov. 5, 2010, replacing Neuvirth with 10 minutes left in the third period. Holtby stopped all four shots he faced in relief, the Caps in front of him scored twice, and the kid’s first win proved to be foreshadowing.

Despite posting better numbers in the bigs (10-2-2, two shutouts, 1.79 GAA, .934) during his 14 NHL appearances in 2010-11 than he had in any of his seasons with the AHL Bears or the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, Holtby was returned to Hershey in March 2011. Only injury, and not Washington’s underachieving regular season, gave cause for him to return.

The last rookie netminder to win a Game 7 before Holtby did on Wednesday, when Ward potted the 2-1 OT clincher, was the Buffalo Sabres’ Steve Shields in 1997 versus the Ottawa Senators. But starting rookies when it counts is what the modern-day Capitals do.

Over the last four postseasons, Washington rookie goalies have claimed all of the franchise’s 18 victories. Semyon Varlamov had 10, Neuvirth four, and now Holtby has four and counting. All other NHL clubs combined during the last four years have only 15 wins attributed with freshmen between the pipes.

While the headlines of the opening round have featured a heaping dose of the negative – Increase in suspensions! Blind referees! Collapse in Vancouver! Racist tweeters! – the performance of a young unlikely superstar is refreshing.

“My type of fun is intensity, is big games, big moments,” Holtby told the Washington Post after Game 4. His 44-save show in that contest was the most by a rookie since Ken Dryden’s 46-save gem against Boston in 1971. “I might not show it on my face, but that’s the way I’ve always been. I’ve always had the most fun when I’m battling and competing.”

With Washington headed to Round 2, Holtby’s now glaring at a lot more fun. Don’t bet on him to blink.

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