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Can Braden Holtby quiet goalie controversy, rebound from tough start?

Can Braden Holtby quiet goalie controversy, rebound from tough start?

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Braden Holtby has been here before. Every goalie in the NHL has good stretches and bad. Really, one thing that defines a goalie is how they overcome those bad stretches. Holtby had perhaps the greatest rebound a goalie could ever have, going from losing his starting job to Philipp Grubauer in 2018 to taking back the crease in the playoffs and leading the team to a Stanley Cup.

But could this year be different?

A poor start is one thing, but there are also other external factors that may be contributing.

In five games this season, Holtby has a .846 save percentage and 4.27 GAA. His save percentage is the worst among all goalies with at least four starts and his GAA is the second-worst behind only Devan Dubnyk’ s 4.56. It’s a small sample size, but those are horrific numbers made worse by Monday’s performance in which he allowed three goals on three shots before being pulled.

“It was a tough game for Braden and I think he'll be the first one to admit it,” Todd Reirden said after practice on Tuesday. “That's a game I think he'd like to do some things different. I think our team could have played closer to our identity than we did to give him a better chance to have success. But the good thing is he's accountable to it, he knows. He's accountable to himself, he's accountable to his teammates, he's accountable to everybody that he can be better than that and when he gets that chance he will.”

But will he?

Just 16 months removed from overcoming the worst stretch of his career and hoisting the Stanley Cup and still only 30 years old, it seems premature to declare Holtby as finished or to assume he won’t be able to dig himself out of this hole.

“Usually it's just getting back to the basics of things,” Holtby said when asked about overcoming a slump. “A lot of times when things are going your way, you're usually pushing forward too fast and make things [instead] of just letting them come to you. It's just getting back to the basics of playing, trusting your instincts and not letting it affect you. Just go out and play.”

“In times like these - good or bad - it's usually not as good as you think or not as bad as you think,” he added. “You just have to get yourself back to that level mentally where you can break things down and see just those little areas that might be just off a bit that could be the difference.”

But there are two external factors that could be putting pressure on Holtby mentally.

First, this year is the final year of Holtby’s contract. Playing in a contract year can be tough and Holtby certainly would not be the first player to succumb to the pressure that comes with an uncertain future. The second is that his replacement, Ilya Samsonov is now backing him up and doing a pretty darn good job with it.

In three appearances this season, Samsonov, 22, has a .944 save percentage and 1.43 GAA. He was Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2015 and the fact that his first season in the NHL happens to be the last of Holtby’s contract is impossible not to notice.

Holtby was asked if his contract or Samsonov’s presence was affecting him mentally.

“I don’t know, I just think it's wanting to win, wanting to get a good start, maybe getting a little ahead of myself,” he said. “In ways, trying to push too hard. Just take a deep breath and just go out and play. I mean, it's seven games in. A couple months, you won't even remember this conversation. You just stick to the process and keep doing what you think you can do to help the team win.”

“When you break it down like that, who his backup is, yes it is a different scenario,” Reirden said. “The one scenario that isn't different is that I still have plenty of confidence in him. Lots of confidence in him. He's been through this before. We saw that in the Stanley Cup year and then he ends up taking over and helping us win the Stanley Cup and be a huge part of it.”

While Reirden still professes his confidence in Holtby, the recent struggles as well as Samsonov’s strong play have at least given him pause.

Following Monday’s loss, Reirden said of Samsonov, “He's doing what he's supposed to be doing, and that's to make it like a decision every night of who's going to be considered to play that game.”

Reirden also would not commit to naming a starter for Wednesday’s game against a star-studded Toronto Maple Leafs team, but he seemed to be leaning towards Samsonov to give Holtby time to reset. At least that’s what it sounded like.

“Much like every player, goalies will go through situations like this and I'm sure that's how [Holtby] feels about the start to the year. I'm confident that we've got a few practices here, he gets to reset and work with [goalie coach] Scott Murray and get things settled in and then he's ready to go again.”

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The new normal: Caps adjust to the return of hockey during a pandemic

The new normal: Caps adjust to the return of hockey during a pandemic

Training camps opened across the NHL on Monday, marking the start of Phase 3 of the league's return to play plan and bringing us all one step closer to the postseason. But even though hockey may be "back" it sure does feel a lot different. The practices, once open to the public, are now closed. Most of the media are covering camp from home with only a few sitting at their own tables above the rink, each wearing a mask. Unless they are on the ice or conducting interviews on Zoom, the players are in masks wherever they go.

Hockey may be back, but not in the way anyone is used to.

"It's been weird," Lars Eller said. "I think it was most weird in the beginning coming back and doing these tests and seeing everybody wear masks, but now it's just become normal every day. It's almost you notice someone without a mask now. That's the weird thing, right? That's where we are now."

Professional athletes are known as creatures of habit and the Capitals players are no different. All of those habits now must be cast aside as the players adjust to the health and safety protocols imposed by the NHL and NHLPA.

RELATED: CONNOR MCMICHAEL AN OPTION FOR POSTSEASON

That's the reality of trying to play hockey in a pandemic.

"On the ice is normal," Alex Ovechkin said. "On the ice is same rules what we have before. But soon as you step off the ice in the locker room everybody have to wear a mask. It's kind of weird, but I'm pretty sure we're going to get used to it."

"Obviously, it’s things we’re not used to, but for the most part, every other day you just spit in a little tube and then you go onto the rink," T.J. Oshie said. "Obviously, it’s not as comfortable wearing a mask as it would be without, but as far as on the ice stuff it feels like a normal training camp except for we’re kind of ramping things up as we go, which I think is great. I think it’s saving guys from getting hurt. But just less numbers out there, so more reps. Unfortunately, it’s kind of becoming a little bit normal going around with a mask and not being able to hug the guys, but it’s fine and we’re grinding through it.”

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For their part, the players understand and accept the precautions being taken. No one wants to play hockey more than they do and they want to be able to do it in a way that is safe both for them and for their families.

"if we get a chance to play hockey we are going to do whatever we can to make it work," Brenden Dillon said.

He added, "I think our staff here has done an unbelievable job of making us feel safe and ultimately it is going to be about these next couple weeks before we can get to the bubble. We’ve been assured it is going to be as safe as it can be there and a little bit of an unknown until we can get there and get into that routine. It is going to be a little different setup than in your home dressing room, that comfortability that we’ve gotten used to. I think everybody if we can all do our part and realize that with this crazy circumstances we have to be safe.”

The trade-off, however, is that the game they loved and have played for essentially their entire lives looks and feels a lot different than ever before.

"It's been an adjustment, but the whole world's adjusting and we're just adjusting with it," Eller said. "Now it's just started to feel normal. We see every single person around you doing the same thing, it becomes the new normal."

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Capitals top prospect Connor McMichael an option to play in postseason, according to Todd Reirden

Capitals top prospect Connor McMichael an option to play in postseason, according to Todd Reirden

When it comes to the playoffs, rarely do black aces generate much excitement. Black aces are players a team recalls from the minors to serve as depth/practice players during the postseason. Most of them are brought in with the expectation that they won't play and, even if they do, it is only out of necessity. And then there are players like Connor McMichael.

The Caps' first-round draft pick from 2019, McMichael is coming off a brilliant season in the OHL with the London Knights where be recorded 102 points in 52 games. Teams will often bring up players they see as future NHLers to serve as black aces even if they are not going to play, just for the experience of being with the team during the postseason. After a productive training camp in September, it is no surprise to see McMichael back with the Caps as the team prepares for the playoffs.

"It was really cool, just coming in and seeing all the pros like [Alex Ovechkin], [Nicklas Backstrom] and those guys, guys I grew up watching," McMichael said. "It was really cool to be around them and to see how they approach the game every single day. So, I took a lot of that back to London. Just here, black acing it, it's a cool experience watching them play in the playoffs and how they treat their bodies every day to be ready to go. So, I'm really excited."

In a typical season, there were be essentially no chance the 19-year-old, 181-pound McMichael would get into the lineup. But this is not a typical season.

RELATED: CONNOR MCMICHAEL A BLACK ACE CANDIDATE FOR PLAYOFFS

The first three games for Washington will be round robin games and, though they matter in terms of seeding, they don't matter in terms of being do-or-die. The Caps could lose all three games and still be in the playoffs. Because of that, it leaves head coach Todd Reirden the opportunity to experiment with his lineup if he chooses. Could that leave an opening for McMichael to possibly crack the lineup for a game?

It's not a subject the coaches have breached with the young forward just yet.

"No, they haven't talked to me about that too much," McMichael said. "The coaches were just telling everyone to be ready. You never know what can happen in the playoffs. You need depth in the playoffs, especially. I'm just ready to go whenever I get my name called."

When asked if McMichael could possibly play in the postseason, however, Reirden made clear that he wouldn't be with the team if he wasn't seen as at least an option.

I AM THE PROSPECT: CONNOR MCMICHAEL'S PATH TO THE NHL

"I think that's something that we're going to continue to evaluate," Reirden said. "If we didn't think that he was an option to be able to be played then that would be a player we wouldn't probably bring to the hub city with us. He's going to be there and he's going to be in Toronto, then to me, he's an option because so many things can change so quickly with what's going to happen inside this bubble."

Lars Eller has already expressed his intention to leave the bubble for the birth of his second child which will force the team to replace him in the lineup. Also, the longer the Caps go in the playoffs, the more likely it is that there will be an injury somewhere forcing in someone else. If that opportunity comes along for McMichael, he said he will be ready.

"I'm just really happy to be here," McMichael said. "I'm going to do everything to prove to the coaches that I can play in the lineup and, if not, I'll always be ready in case someone gets hurt or other things happen. So, I'm just really excited to be here and it should be really fun."

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