Thursday was a surreal experience for all those involved at the Verizon Center Thursday night, seeing a hockey team other than the Washington Capitals take the ice for the first time this year.
For one player though, it was probably stranger than it was for the others. Braden Holtby should be in Washington, should be with the Capitals and should be starting in net. Instead, he is starting yet another year with the Hershey Bears, the minor league affiliate he has started the last three seasons with.
“Its definitely weird, its weird being here and not seeing any of the guys, thats for sure. But, you know, it is what it is,” Holtby said following the game. “To tell you the truth, at the start of the year, I didn’t think I’d be here for this game, I thought it would be solved by now, but that’s what happens and I was just glad to be here and play.”
His good feelings to be in Washington are still bittersweet. The 23-year-old Saskatchewan native took the NHL by storm last year, stepping in for injured starters Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun and led the Caps to the brink of advancing to the Eastern Conference finals. A not so out-of-nowhere surprise, Holtby seemed to always be stuck behind a series of set goalies who were blocking his way to the NHL level. Whether it was Neuvirth and Vokoun or Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore, Holtby was always the third guy in the pecking order.
Now though, Holtby is Washington’s man. His stellar postseason, seven wins and seven loses with a pristine 1.95 goals against average and 93.5 save percentage — under the harsh spotlight of the NHL playoffs — shows he has the talent to succeed in the NHL. Too bad the kid just cannot seem to find his way there when the season actually starts for the Caps.
Even though he desperately wants to be back at the Verizon Center, Holtby admitted his first few minutes there were not as great as he hoped they’d be.
“To be honest the first few strides didn’t feel too good, the ice wasn’t that great tonight,” Holtby said amongst a throng of reporters. “But it was good to see the crowd again, be back here in Verizon Center and it was great and luckily pulled out a victory”
Even though he is merely in Hershey to stay in shape, Holtby is still trying his best to win games and improve his skills. Towards the end of the game on Thursday, fans got a glimpse at just how much more technically advanced the young netminder of the future has gotten since last year. The subtle quick movements show how he may in fact not even be relatively close to reaching his ceiling.
As a fourth round pick, it is surprising Holtby has made it this far in his career at all, but at the end of the third period he showed why he’s regarded as the incumbent No. 1 despite his limited regular season experience at the NHL level. The Admirals were throwing everything at the net in an attempt to tie up the game and Holtby, who has struggled with pucks down low in the past, slammed the door. In a scene reminiscent of the one demonstrating Vladislav Tretiak’s ability in the movie “Miracle,” Holtby went down into the butterfly several times and stood back up in a 10-second span of time. While it may look easy, it shows the work Holtby has put in this summer to be able to make a save and immediately reset to be ready for the next one.
Despite the changes and advancements that are obvious in his game, Holtby’s play in the American Hockey League has not been stellar this year. In 15 games with the Bears this year, he is 8-7 with a 2.59 save percentage. Even he will admit he is not living up to his own expectations.
“There has been ups and downs, but as a group I think we want to play better,” Holtby said of his and Bears’ season. “Our record doesn’t indicate what we want to be at. That is what I take. If a team is doing good, it usually reflects on the goaltending. If not, it usually reflects on the goaltending.”
Even as the fans chanted “Fire Bettman” and booed the Washington Captials during the showcase — a chant Holtby said he could not hear well enough to figure out — his suffering or lack of playing is not his biggest concern. Instead, to him it is the state of the overall game that he finds the hardest to watch right now during the lockout.
“Yeah, it is, it is not the best situation. Like I said, it is out of our control. We’d all love to be playing hockey for the fans, especially here,” Holtby said of the lockout. “That is the hardest part to swallow, is seeing the game of hockey, really take a hit and it is a game we are all passionate about.”
No one knows when — or if — the lockout will end this year, considering the league Tuesday cancelled all games through the end of the calendar year. One thing hockey is really missing out on while they aren’t playing isn’t the necessarily the games themselves — though that is bad enough. Instead, it is the opportunity to see special talents on the ice like Holtby. The young goalie is clearly improved from last year and looks like he will be ready and able to step in for Washington once he is called upon. Whenever that may be.