In what is turning out to be an historic hockey season for the Washington Capitals, goaltender Braden Holtby has been at the center of it all.
With Monday night’s 2-1 shootout victory over the Anaheim Ducks, the Caps’ 26-year-old netminder became the fastest goalie in NHL history to reach 41 wins.
With 16 games remaining, he’s already matched his career-high win total from last season and is marching every so diligently toward Marty Brodeur’s all-time record of 48 victories.
Holtby is just the seventh goaltender in NHL history to record back-to-back 40-win seasons and the first since Evgeni Nabokov (2007-09).
So what does it all mean to Holtby?
“All I care about is winning,” he said. “If we win most of our games and my stats are horrible it doesn’t matter. Winning is the main objective in hockey. It’s a team stat so it’s a lot more enjoyable.”
This is why the Caps’ coaching staff will do everything within reason to get Holtby to break Brodeur’s record. (He is, by the way, two wins ahead of the pace set by Brodeur in 2006-07).
While there is a perception around the NHL that Holtby has been overworked this season, the Capitals would beg to differ. Last season Holtby set the club record by playing in 73 games. This season he is on pace for 67 games.
Caps goaltending coach Mitch Korn is particularly mindful of how many starts Holtby should be given down the stretch.
After starting seven straight games from Feb. 18 through March 1, Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have split the past four games and there’s a good chance Grubauer will be back between the pipes Wednesday night in Los Angeles, with Holtby returning to the net on Saturday when the Caps wrap up their road trip in San Jose.
If Holtby and Grubauer split the next two games and split the Caps’ three remaining back-to-back sets, that would give Holtby 12 chances to get eight victories needed to break Brodeur’s record and nine wins to reach the magical 50-win season.
Holtby says that if it was up to him, he’d play every one of the Caps’ remaining 16 games. In fact, he’s probably not happy the Caps have been given off today and Thursday this week.
“I feel better when I play more,” he said. “I don’t really like the feeling of off days. I feel like I take a step back instead of a step forward. I’ve said it forever. It’s not up to me but if I was asked I would definitely do it (play every game).”
Against the Ducks on Monday Holtby was perhaps the best player on the ice, making several timely saves to keep the Capitals within one goal through two periods and allowing Ansdre Burakovsky to tie the game early in the third.
After the game Burakovsky was asked if he thought it was Holtby’s best game since the All-Star break.
“It’s tough to say,” Burakovsky replied, “because in my eyes he’s always sharp. He’s always standing on his head and saving us, so for me it was just another day for him.”
Nicklas Backstrom says the one thing he’s noticed about Holtby this season is the calmness he has shown between the pipes.
“I think this year he really took the next step and he has even more steps to take,” Backstrom said. “This year he’s been incredible to watch. He’s so calm back there and he wraps up wins like he’s been doing it all his life. It’s impressive and I’m happy for him.”
Backstrom said he’s also happy to see Holtby’s stellar season recognized by Team Canada, which selected him as one of three goaltenders for the 2016 World Cup, which will be held in Toronto in September. Holtby, on the other hand, said being recognized as one of the game’s elite goaltenders means little to him.
“It doesn’t make a difference to me,” he said. “It doesn’t make me better, it doesn’t make me worse. I try to prepare every game to be at my best for the Capitals and try to accomplish a goal here. All the other stuff is kind of noise in the background.”
It’s noise certain to grow louder with each passing victory.
MORE CAPITALS: Holtby leads Capitals to shootout win over Ducks