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Key Caps questions: Which Braden Holtby will we see this season?

Key Caps questions: Which Braden Holtby will we see this season?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Which Braden Holtby are we most likely to see this season: February Holtby or playoff Holtby?

Tarik: The season ended in the best way imaginable for the Capitals as a team. It also ended in the best way imaginable for Braden Holtby as an individual.

There’s no disputing the fact that Holtby endured the toughest regular season since he broke into the NHL.

The 28-year-old posted career-worst marks in both save percentage (.907) and goals against average (2.99). He also ended up with 34 wins, his lowest total in a full season.

Holtby also lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer entering the playoffs.

But instead of wallowing in self-pity, he quietly went about rebuilding his game so that if he were needed again, he’d be ready. And, of course, his number was called just a couple of games into the first round.

After replacing Grubauer in Game 2, Holtby was the best goalie in the playoffs—and it wasn’t all that close. Among goalies who appeared in at least 12 postseason games, Holtby’s .922 save percentage was tied for second best (with Connor Hellebuyck and ranked behind only Marc Andre Fleury’s .927). Holtby’s 2.16 goals against average, meanwhile, was tops.

And then there was ‘The Save’ in the waning moments of Game 2 of the Final. I’m not sure there’s a Stanley Cup in Washington if Holtby didn’t get his stick on that Alex Tuch layup, preserving the Caps’ 3-2 win.

Whether it was mental fatigue or physical fatigue or something else that led to Holtby’s midseason slump, we can be sure of this much: it was the first protracted rough patch of his career. More important than the struggles, though, he figured out how to ‘reset’ himself on the fly. Many top goalies who have enjoyed staying power over the years, guys like Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo, to name a couple, have all had to do that from time-to-time, and now Holtby knows he’s got that ability, too.

In the span of seven weeks, Holtby rewrote his franchise’s history and how everyone—including himself—will view his 2017-18 season.

Struggles? What struggles?

That’s a long-winded way of saying I’d be shocked if Holts doesn’t pick up right where he left off in Las Vegas.

JJ:  A shocking proportion of the Caps' fan base has completely taken Holtby for granted for much of his Capitals career, labeled him a poor playoff performer and pointed to Grubauer as a better long-term option in net. Hopefully, all of those doubters have now seen the light.

Holtby has been consistently great in both the regular season and the playoffs throughout his entire career with only a few hiccups, and last season's slump was by far his worst. Grubauer rightly got the nod heading into the playoffs as the hotter of the two netminders, but any continued doubts anyone has regarding whether or not Holtby is a great goalie were officially put to rest during last season's playoff run.

Heading into the Stanley Cup Final, Marc-Andre Fleury's name was penciled in as the Conn Smythe winner. Holtby outplayed him and outplayed him badly:

Holtby: 5 GP, 4-1 record, .916 save percentage, 2.62 GAA
Fleury: 5 GP, 1-4 record, .853 save percentage, 4.09 GAA

But JJ, what about the 2017 playoffs?

Holtby's 2017 postseason was his worst postseason and that was a major factor in the team's second-round loss to Pittsburgh. For his career, however, Holtby has a .929 save percentage in the playoffs which ranks third all-time. He also boasts a 2.04 postseason GAA, the best among all active goalies and 12th all-time.

Why am I throwing these numbers at you? Because Holtby is a great goalie who, like all goalies, is subject to slumps from time to time. For some unknown reason, there has been a tendency to define Holtby by his slumps instead of his overall body of work which is beyond reproach.

The way Holtby rebounded from last season's slump showed how strong a netminder he is mentally. I have zero doubt that he will enter the season in top form.

Fatigue is the only factor I find concerning. There's no Grubauer behind Holtby who can step in for 35 games this season. Instead, it will be Pheonix Copley as backup, a goalie with a grand total of two NHL games worth of experience. 

Limiting Holtby to about 60 games would be ideal, but I am doubtful that is going to happen this season. Otherwise, I have no doubt we will see the normally dominant Holtby once again.

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A return six months in the making for defenseman Michal Kempny

A return six months in the making for defenseman Michal Kempny

It took six months of toil and effort for Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny to make it back to an NHL game. 

He last played March 20 when a torn hamstring in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning ended his season just a few weeks before the Stanley Cup playoffs began. That was brutal. 

A spring to heal after surgery, a summer to rehab the injury and weeks getting back in hockey shape were the steep price paid. And then it took him all of 15 minutes to score his first goal on Friday in a game against the New York Rangers. Welcome back, Michal. 

“I felt pretty good, actually. My legs felt good,” Kempny said. “Obviously not an easy situation for me. But I got to say just thank you to all of the staff, whole organization, my teammates, my family, my friends who were supporting me all the way through here and help me. It means a lot to me.”

It was an organizational project. Kempny meant so much to Washington during its Stanley Cup run of 2018. The Capitals felt his absence on the top pair with John Carlson during the first-round series loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. 

Washington coach Todd Reirden credited team trainers Jason Servis and Mike Booi and strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish with putting Kempny in position to return early in the season.  

“Six months of investment of their time to get him back,” Reirden said. “I thought Michal looked really good.”

The goal came at 15:16 of the first period and gave Washington a 2-1 lead. Kempny jumped onto a loose pucked batted around by teammate Alex Ovechkin, quickly corralled it and beat Henrik Lundqvist for the goal. It was a pretty play and another indication that Capitals' defensemen are taking chances when they see them on the offensive end. 

In his first game back, Kempny had 14:24 of ice time. That’s about the goal the Capitals had in mind for him. He started on the third pair with fellow Czech Radko Gudas, but also played 3:42 with Carlson, who mobbed Kempny after his goal and gave him a celebratory facewash with his glove. They’re happy to have him back. 

“I just grab the puck and there was open net, so a little lucky for me,” Kempny said. “I was just excited.”

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Garnet Hathaway becomes latest Capital to win the Nats batting helmet

Garnet Hathaway becomes latest Capital to win the Nats batting helmet

With the Washinigton Nationals in attendance, Garnet Hathaway battled his way against the New York Rangers to win the Capitals "hard hat" award.

Hathaway sealed the Capitals' 5-2 win over the Rangers with an empty net goal late in the third period. Earlier in the game, Hathaway broke his nose, an injury that proved incapable of stopping him from donning the Nationals batting helmet.

The Capitals honor their game-MVP with the hard hat award, an object that gets passed down after every victory. This year the Caps are supporting their baseball peers by awarding a game-used Nationals batting helmet.

Hathaway was also involved in a fight to stand up for teammate Dmitry Orlov after a late hit. Hathaway's toughness certainly earned him the award, but the Capitals were not without several options for the honor.

T.J. Oshie scored two power play goals for the second time in his career, and Michal Kempny scored a goal in his season debut. Kempny had missed the beginning of the season after suffering a torn left hamstring in April.

The Capitals capped off a three-game homestand with back-to-back wins. The Captials are now 10-0-1 against the Rangers in  their last 11 games after the Caps' 5-2 win.

The Capitals' next game will be in Chicago against the Blackhawks, the first stop of a five-game road trip.

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