It’s no secret what the biggest question surrounding the Washington Capitals is right now: What happened to Braden Holtby?
Since Feb. 2, Holtby has been pulled four times in 11 starts with a .872 save percentage and 4.45 GAA. For a goalie whose career has been marked by consistently great play and who has won a Vezina Trophy after being a finalist in each of the past two seasons, those are staggering numbers.
Now with Holtby set to make his first start since March 6, he sounds very confident that he has put those problems behind him.
“It was obviously good to clear your mind and step back,” Holtby said after Friday’s morning skate. “It makes it a lot better when we had success while that was going on. That makes it easier to just focus on regrouping and just working on a few things a couple days in practice.”
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Some have speculated, including former Capitals goalie Brent Johnson, that perhaps fatigue was the cause of his struggles.
Since the 2014-15 season, no goalie has played in more games than Holtby’s 250. Even after Philipp Grubauer’s recent stretch of starts, Holtby still has played in six more games than the closest goalie, Boston netminder Tuukka Rask.
On Friday, Hotlby admitted there was some fatigue, but that it was all mental, not physical.
“Physically, I actually feel way better this year than last,” he said. “If you're fatigued physically, that's on you. That's not on anything else. But mentally, it does catch up. Just that little extra fire that you have, sometimes you take things for granted and you go through the motions a bit, which you never want to do because we're in a pretty lucky situation playing in the NHL, but human nature kind of takes over sometimes.”
Holtby further explained his mental fatigue was from, “trying to be too perfect, trying to play outside my means I guess and that's something that never really goes well. I think just the adjustment from the start of the season until now, I think I was just putting a little bit too much pressure on myself and that usually wears on you and exhausts you in the end. I think that's a good lesson to learn.”
Luckily for Washington, Holtby’s current struggles have not hurt the team. Philipp Grubauer has been phenomenal in Holtby’s stead and, in fact, has statistically been one of the top netminders in the league.
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Since Nov. 1, among goalies who have played at least 20 games, Grubauer’s .937 save percentage and 1.88 GAA both rank as the best in the NHL.
For some, this means there is now a goalie controversy in Washington. For Holtby, however, he actually now feels less pressure than before because of Grubauer’s success.
“[Grubauer’s] been outstanding for us,” Holtby said, “This little stretch here, he's held our team together and got us some key wins. That takes a lot of pressure off the rest of us.”
That may be surprising to hear considering Grubauer is making a legitimate case to be the team’s starter heading into the postseason. But Holtby isn’t thinking about that. In fact, thinking too much about the future is exactly why he struggled so much in the first place.
All Holtby is thinking about now is the game in front of him.
“I think tonight's more just the moment at hand,” he said. “Don't worry about past or future or whatever. It's just getting back to being comfortable out there and just playing. You're out there to compete and compete for your team and that's it.”
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