Fresh off a statement season in which he set career highs in wins (41), shutouts (9), games played (73), goals-against average (2.22) and save percentage (.923), Braden Holtby will make his preseason debut tonight when the Capitals take on the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center.
“Finally,” Holtby said with a grin. “I can’t wait.”
Holtby is scheduled to play the first 30 minutes of tonight’s game before giving way to Dan Ellis, a 35-year-old veteran goaltender signed by the Capitals on July 4, two days after the Capitals acquired right wing T.J. Oshie from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for right wing Troy Brouwer, goaltender Pheonix Copley and a third-round pick in next year’s draft.
A 12-year veteran of 212 NHL games and 195 AHL games, Ellis said he had received only a few “nibbles” and “poking around” when free agency opened on July 1. But after the Caps made the deal for Oshie, he reached out to Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn, his goaltending coach in Nashville from 2007-10.
“It was kind of a last-minute thing,” Ellis said. “I asked Mitch if it opened a spot. He said there was a list and I might be on it. Forty-eight hours later I signed.”
In all likelihood, Ellis will begin the 2015-16 season as the backup in Hershey, under either Justin Peters or Philipp Grubauer, who are fighting for the right to back up Holtby.
“As a backup goalie you always want to give your starter the rest he needs and when he does get those games off you want to give the team the confidence there’s not going to be a big step down,” said Ellis, who last season played in eight games for the Florida Panthers and 37 games for the AHL San Antonio Rampage.
With rookie prospects Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos expected to begin their pro careers in Hershey, Ellis said he hopes to provide the veteran presence needed on the Bears.
“I’m one of the older guys, next to (Jason) Chimera, and you want to bring a little bit of calmness to the room, especially when things get hairy. I’m a humorous guy and light-hearted, so if you can lighten the load on some of these guys, it’s key.
“Sometimes if a coach is harping down their throats I can be the guy to encourage and tell them to stick with it.”
Since Ellis will play the second half of tonight’s game he’ll also get the call for the 3-on-3 overtime period, which will be played regardless of the score after 60 minutes to allow teams experiment with the new format.
Ellis had some experience with the 3-on-3 format last season in San Antonio, when the AHL experimented with a seven-minute overtime that began 4-on-4 before going to 3-on-3.
“Obviously, there’s going to be a learning curve for these guys,” Ellis said. “It’s going to be pretty wide open. This is the highest level of skill in the world and when you give a guy like (Alex) Ovechkin multiple breakaways he’s going to score. This team is loaded with talent.”
Ellis offered some cautionary advice to players like Ovechkin, saying many missed shots led to game-deciding breakaways the other way.
“Honestly, when someone missed the net the puck would carom around,” Ellis said. “One guy bolts the zone and is on a breakaway. I’d say we had four or five games ended on straight breakaways. You definitely don’t want to miss the net.”
The Caps will also experiment with the 3-on-3 overtime following regulation on Tuesday night in Boston and again on Friday night, Oct. 2 at home against the Bruins. Unless their other games go to overtime, Holtby’s first taste of 3-on-3 could come on Oct. 2.
“Goaltending doesn’t change much,” Holtby said. “You find the open guys, realize your options and react to it. We train all summer 3-on-3. It’s not exactly our favorite thing, but it will be more fun when it’s intense with guys actually backchecking.”
Caps coach Barry Trotz wondered if some goalies might switch to lighter sticks or gloves so they can handle the puck better in the overtime periods. Holtby says he won’t.
“Mine are kind of based on that already,” he said.
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