When Capitals fans last saw Braden Holtby, he was riding the incredible wave of his first Stanley Cup playoff run while adjusting to life as a new father all at the age of 22.
Today, little Benjamin Hunter Holtby is 4 months, his father recently turned 23 and their new family is adjusting to life right where Holtby began last season in Hummelstown, Pa. as a member of the Hershey Bears.
This, of course, was not the plan the Capitals had in store for Holtby after watching him take the NHL by storm last spring, becoming the most talked about rookie goaltender in the league.
This was supposed to be Holtbys proving ground, his first full preseason as an NHL starter. The NHL lockout has changed that, but unlike most of the leagues 700-plus players, Holtby has a place to play. He begins training camp with the Hershey Bears today at the Giant Center.
Everyones in the same situation and Im lucky I get a place to play, Holtby told CSNWashington.com. Its an unfortunate situation with the NHL right now, but hopefully they get it solved and get it done right. Im sure the guy in charge, Don Fehr, will do the right thing for the union and well be back playing as soon as possible.
Until then, Holtby says hes happy to be renting a house in Hummelstown, a quaint, small town within smelling distance of Hersheys chocolate factory.
I feel like Im in the best situation I can be, Holtby said. Obviously, it would be nice to see what I can do over a complete season in Washington, but thats not my mindset. I want to keep getting better and use some of the things I learned in the playoffs and get even better.
Holtby is no stranger to adjusting to life on the fly. Last summer his aspirations of starting the 2011-12 season as Michal Neuvirths backup were railroaded when the Caps signed Tomas Vokoun to be their No. 1 goalie.
Holtby began the season in Hershey and struggled to find consistency in his game, going 20-15-2 with a 2.61 goals-against average.
If you looked at his year just by the numbers, you would say it was disappointing, Bears fifth-year coach Mark French recalled. But I think there was a progression, so there was no surprise when he went up and played well in Washington because he was going on a straight line up to be playing better.
Holtby was recalled by the Caps on March 4 when Vokoun suffered a season-ending groin injury, and helped guide the club into the playoffs, going 4-1-1 in the final two weeks of the regular season.
That run continued through the post-season when Holtby outdueled Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins in a thrilling seven-game series, then took another Vezina Trophy winner, Henrik Lundqvist, and the New York Rangers to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Braden always seems to rise to an occasion, French said. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the response. I think once he was put on that stage he certainly responded to the challenge.
French said he was most impressed by Holtbys composure during the playoffs. During his three years in the AHL, Holtby carved a reputation as a fiery, often out-of-control goalie prone to letting his emotions get the best of him.
But during that first-round series against the Bruins, Holtby showed incredible restraint when he refused to bite on Rich Peverleys mean-spirited bait, a stick swing that came just short of making contact with the young goalie. Watch here.
Those are the moments that you say, Well, theres a guy growing up in front of us, French said. That maturity to take a step back, which was absolutely the right decision. Those are the moments youre proud and you know a guy is understanding and growing and maturing.
Holtby played every minute of the Caps playoff run, going 7-7 with a 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage. He says those numbers are more reflective of the strong defense and shot-blocking ability of the Capitals than his own talents.
It was a fortunate situation for me, Holtby said. I felt like it was a month and a half where everything seemed to come easy and I got all the breaks. It probably had a lot to do with our team. Everybody really bought in and we were playing outstanding hockey as a group. Thats basically where goaltenders numbers come from. You cant have one without the other.
Throughout the playoffs Holtby never lost back-to-back games, following every crushing loss with a crucial victory. And he did it while going through the emotions of becoming a father for the first time. Benjamin Hunter was born on May 10, two days before the seventh and final game against the Rangers.
French said Holtbys calm in the face of so many life-changing events revealed a part of his character that will serve him well as his NHL career progresses.
Hes got a quiet confidence about him that hes not going to take a back seat, French said. Hes not arrogant about it, but hes a very confident individual. I dont think he was overwhelmed by it. The one thing that really impressed me was how efficient his game was, how he stayed within himself.
And now Holtby faces yet another challenge, beginning what was supposed to be his breakout season in the NHL in the American Hockey League. With the uncertainty of the NHL labor negotiations, Holtby chose not to rent a place in Washington. He and his fianc, Brandi, are renting a home in Hummelstown until further notice.
And hes fine with that.
Im a Hershey Bear until things get changed, he said. It wouldnt be the worst thing to start the season here and finish in Washington.