Braden Holtby is breaking a record tonight, and he couldn’t care less.
The Washington Capitals’ most bona fide No. 1 goaltender in more than a decade will snap Wayne Stephenson’s 35-year-old franchise mark for consecutive games played when he assumes the visitors’ crease Thursday in Philadelphia – his 23rd straight appearance for a team that relies on him, and vice versa.
A soft-spoken, me-last netminder of slight build and 1,000-thread-count beard, Holtby dismisses the subject at first. When we push that his steadiest workload as an NHLer must mean something significant – after Wednesday’s 6-2 win in Toronto, in which Holtby made 11 more saves than counterpart Jonathan Bernier – Holtby answers.
“[The workload] does matter because we’re playing well. We’re winning games. But records like that don’t mean anything to me. I like to play every game,” he says. “Anytime I’m asked to go in, I’m going to enjoy it, but those records don’t matter.”
Gotta See It: Holtby’s 2014-15 highlight reel
Next to the rival New York Rangers, a team new coach Barry Trotz has vowed to surpass, the Capitals are the hottest team in their division, as Holtby seeks his fourth consecutive win and 15th point-earning game in his last 16.
But you’re better off asking the 25-year-old’s captain than the man himself about his career-season pace (19-8-6, 2.29 GAA, .921 save percentage).
“He don’t talk about it,” Alex Ovechkin says. “He’s just working harder in practice. That’s the biggest thing he’s doing right now.”
Ovechkin explains that Holtby has requested his teammates fire pucks as hard as possible during practice to keep his reaction sharp. And during warmup Wednesday, Ovie takes three direct charges at Holtby’s crease and tries to score with a head of steam. Holtby turns all three aside.
“I think when you want to be the best, you have to stop the best shot. So in practice, we take our hardest shots: high, low, hard,” Ovechkin says. “The beginning of the year, because we changed the coach and the goalie coach [now Mitch Korn], he was a little bit frustrated because we were losing and he let in some fluky goals. But right now he’s playing his game.”
And, paradoxically, playing more and less of his game than ever before.
Under Adam Oates last season, the Lloydminster, Sask., native started 55 percent of the Capitals’ games, down from 73 percent in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, his first “full” season since his breakout performance as a rookie in the 2012 playoffs. As of Thursday morning he is on pace to start 69 (or 85 percent) of the Caps’ games this season.
Not since Jose Theodore in 2008-09 has a Capitals No. 1 claimed the crease for at least 50 starts. And one must trace back 11 years to find a Washington goaltender with at least 60 starts; Olie Kolzig, who holds nearly every meaningful franchise goaltending mark, started 63 contests in 2003-04 but only won 19 of them.
On the flip side, Holtby’s nights are less intense. Holtby is seeing about five fewer pucks per game as the Capitals have chopped down their shots-allowed average to 28.7 (12th best in the league) under Trotz, the former Nashville boss who used Pekka Rinne for 73 games in 2011-12. Under Oates, Washington gave up 33.5 per game (27th best).
The off-season additions of pricy free-agent defencemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen cannot be ignored.
“I really think our back end has improved,” says veteran Brooks Laich. “If you look at Holts’s numbers in December, he’s right up there with the best in the league. That means (a) he’s playing really well and (b) we’re playing really well defensively – to give long-range shots, not giving second chances, that sort of thing.”
When we walk by Braden Holtby 40 minutes before puck drop Wednesday at Air Canada Centre, he’s already in the zone. Alone in the arena’s hallway, he has his pads, blocker and trapper on and is facing a wall. Visualizing imaginary shots, fictional rebounds and blue-paint scrambles, his hands flick and dart, his legs kick out, snap back.
The routine is spastic, hypnotizing and, save the soft whip of leather in the air, silent.
Gotta See It: Holtby’s pre-game ritual
Not unlike Kate Hudson, Kevin Durant and Stifler, Holtby’s mom is more famous as he is. The CBC cameras adored her expressions during the Caps’ 2012 post-season, and Tami made another cameo during her son’s New Year’s Day win at the Winter Classic.
Holtby describes himself as an “old-school guy” and if not reluctant before the camera is certainly even-keel, monotone. In control. If he holds off until Jan. 28, it will be a full year since Holtby tapped out a Twitter message (and that last tweet was for charity).
Yet his performance this winter – 788:35 minutes of work, eight wins, 19 standings points and a .929 in December alone – is deafening.
“We were just a tiny bit off at the start of the year and weren’t getting any breaks, and our record suffered for it,” Holtby says. “But we did a great job of realizing we were close and not backing down and still pushing in the right direction. We got rewarded for it in the month of December and we want an even better month of January.”
So far, they’re a perfect 3-0 this month and couldn’t care more.