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Braden Holtby is playing his best hockey of the season at just the right time for the Capitals

Braden Holtby is playing his best hockey of the season at just the right time for the Capitals

A crucial aspect of any Stanley Cup run is goaltending. For the Capitals, that has been a question mark all season. Long-time starter Braden Holtby struggled in the regular season and was largely outplayed by the rookie Ilya Samsonov. But Samsonov suffered an injury prior to training camp and did not travel with the team to the bubble in Toronto. That safety net is now gone and the crease belongs entirely to Holtby. Is he up to the task? Based on what we saw in the round robin, the answer is an emphatic yes.

While the team put together a rather inconsistent performance in three round robin games, Holtby was one of the few bright spots.

"I think [Holtby's] for sure been our best player," T.J. Oshie said. "That's no question. I think he's tracking the puck very well."

The news is no surprise to New York Islanders head coach, Barry Trotz, who saw first hand how important Holtby can be in a playoff run and who will now have to figure out how to beat him in Round 1 of the playoffs.

"I can tell you that Braden is a quality goaltender and if you're going to beat any team in the playoffs, you're going to have to get to their goaltender, make it hard on them and all that," Trotz said. "I wouldn't have won a championship without Braden Holtby. I know that. I know his character, I know his ability."

For much of the season, however, Holby looked like a shadow of that goalie from the 2018 run.

Holtby posted a .897 save percentage and 3.11 GAA in 48 games in 2019-20. Statistically, it was by far the worst season of his career. It is the first time Holtby has been held to a sub .900 save percentage and also the first time he has been dinged for over 3.00 goals against. Washington's defensive struggles certainly were a factor as well, but Samsonov played behind that same defense and he recorded a .913 save percentage and 2.55 GAA.

RELATED: CAPS VS. ISLANDERS GAME 1 - WHAT TO EXPECT NOW THAT THE GAMES MATTER

With Samsonov out for the postseason, Holtby was going to have to be better for Washington to have any hope for a postseason run and, so far, he has been.

"it seems like he's seeing the ice and seeing the game really well," Oshie said. "He's anticipating right, he's making huge saves at big times for us and there hasn't been too many scrambles in front of our net. There's been a couple, but for the most part, he's doing a really good job of swallowing up rebounds and making it easy on the defensemen and centermen to not give them any second or third opportunities."

“What impresses me the most about him is he is always so calm back there," Nicklas Backstrom said. "He’s been playing great these last couple of games and you see the poise he is playing with. That is great to see and obviously he’s a big key for our team to be successful so moving forward here, that is what we need.”

Holtby seems to have benefitted significantly from the long pause to the season, but it is not just a matter of rest. Holtby acknowledged the pause gave him time to "fix a few things" in his game and the result of that work has been evident to head coach Todd Reirden.

"[Holtby's] a guy that I think has been able to really solidify his game with some time with Scott Murray, our goaltending coach, for the better part of Phase 2 before getting into Phase 3," Reirden said. "I think he’s able to re-establish some of the habits and the details in his game that have given him success in the past and been able to do it on his own learning curve with the extra time here.  I think it’s proved beneficial."

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The rebound could not have come at a better time.

Holtby has always been at his best during the postseason and boasts the fifth-best playoff save percentage in history. But at the age of 30 and with his regular season numbers on a steady decline for the last three years, it was fair to wonder if perhaps time had caught up to Holtby.

So far, however, it looks like Holtby is rounding into form just in time for the playoffs, just like he always seems to.

"It’s probably the sharpest and freshest I’ve seen him the last game against Boston and he’ll hopefully continue to build on that," Reirden said. "I think he’s headed in the right direction, that’s for sure.”

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The season pause gave Braden Holtby a chance to 'fix a few things' in his game

The season pause gave Braden Holtby a chance to 'fix a few things' in his game

No team can make it far in the playoffs without good goaltending. That's what made the news of Ilya Samsonov's injury so tough for the Capitals. Sure, they still have Braden Holtby, but let's face it, it's been a bad season. Does he even still have it in him to lead the team in the postseason? After three round-robin games, the answer is an emphatic yes.

In a round-robin in which there were seemingly few positives for Washington, Holtby was one of them. He was the team's best player in the round-robin and he capped it off with 30 saves on 31 shots against the Boston Bruins on Sunday, the team's lone win.

Holtby looks like a completely different goalie than the one who managed just a .897 save percentage and 3.11 GAA in 48 regular-season games and that's because he is. The pause to the NHL season allowed Holtby time off to reset his game that he would not have in a normal season and he took advantage.

RELATED: CAPS VS. ISLANDERS NOT ONLY 'TROTZ VS. REIRDEN'

"Put a lot of work in the last couple months and had to fix a few things and work on a few things over the break to strengthen up," Holtby said, "And every game we played here you get a little more stamina and more and more comfortable."

It is pretty remarkable that Holtby was able to improve his game as much as he seems to have done considering that for much of that time, he could not even get on the ice. Yet, as the team prepares for the playoffs, goaltending no longer seems to be an issue. The loss of Samsonov means that the team is in trouble should Holtby struggle or get injured, but in terms of the starting netminder, Holtby is once again the guy. While that may have made fans nervous in January, fans can now be comfortable with that considering Holtby is playing his best hockey of the season.

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What's goalie prospect Vitek Vanecek's upside? Let Olie Kolzig explain

What's goalie prospect Vitek Vanecek's upside? Let Olie Kolzig explain

The injury to Ilya Samsonov left an opportunity for another goalie to step in as the backup to Braden Holtby and prospect Vitek Vanecek has taken that opportunity and run with it. He beat out Pheonix Copley for the job despite the fact that Copley was the backup just last season in 2018-19. When looking at the Capitals' future in net, that conversation has largely begun and ended with Samsonov. But what exactly is the upside of Vanecek? Who better to ask than Olie Kolzig?

Kolzig is one of the best goalies in franchise history so he knows a thing or two about goaltending. As a professional development coach for Washington, he is also very familiar with Vanecek. Kolzig joined the broadcast on NBC Sports Washington on Monday and, when asked about Vanecek, he offered a glowing review.

"I think if you see the small sample size that he showed last week in the exhibition game against Carolina, he can fill in adequately," Kolzig said. "He's got a great demeanor about him, players love playing for him and his progression over the last three or four years has been nothing but phenomenal."

RELATED: VANECEK WILL PLAY IN ROUND-ROBIN, CAPS' FATE THOUGH WITH HOLTBY

Vanecek now has five years of experience in North America under his belt, but has yet to play in an NHL game. He has nothing left to prove at the AHL level, but his appearance in Wednesday's exhibition against the Carolina Hurricanes was the closest he has come to NHL action.

With the likely departure of Holtby in the offseason, there is going to be an opening on the roster at the goalie position. That makes the biggest question on the mind of Caps fans is just what is Vanecek's ceiling?

"I think he can definitely be a No. 2 in the NHL," Kolzig said. "It wouldn't surprise me if he could battle for a No. 1, but as of now is a No. 2. He's progressed here since [the Capitals] drafted him. His demeanor, his relationship with his teammates, he just needs to be seen. He needs to get some NHL action because he's proved it at the East Coast level and the American League level, but small sample size we saw last week shows he can do it so far at the NHL."

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This is going to be a tricky situation for Washington. If the feeling on Vanecek is that he is a No. 2, then you can see why the team was all-in on Samsonov this season as the backup to Holtby to prepare him for the future. Even if Samsonov is the No. 1 going forward, however, it is not a given that Vanecek will be the No. 2. If the Caps still see themselves as contenders, will general manager Brian MacLellan really want to hand the crease over to two goalies with a combined 26 games of NHL experience? Probably not.

Having a No. 2 goalie in the system is a good player to have, but the timing of it makes it difficult to see what the possible future of Vanecek may be in Washington.

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