There are lots of reasons the Capitals have turned around a season that two months ago seemed lost.
There’s the re-emergence of Alex Ovechkin, who had two goals in his first 10 games and 18 in his last 27.
There’s the sudden impact of Mike Green and Brooks Laich, who have balanced out the forward lines and defense pairing, leading the Caps to a 6-1-1 record since returning from injuries.
There’s the steady rise of a power play that currently ranks No. 1 in the NHL.
And then there’s goaltender Braden Holtby who has quietly rebounded from a shaky 1-4-0 start to go 15-7-1 in his last 23 decisions.
“He always want the ball,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said. “I haven’t seen him not want the ball yet. That’s a great character in a player.”
Entering this weekend’s games against the Florida Panthers [7:30 tonight, CSN] and Tampa Bay Lightning [7 p.m. Sunday, CSN+], Holtby has started 10 straight games and 24 of the Caps’ past 27 games in a season that has afforded little rest for the NHL’s masked men.
With backup Michal Neuvirth anxious to make his first start since March 16, Holtby is expected to get a rest this weekend, either tonight in Sunrise, or Sunday night at home against the Lightning.
Several teammates credited Holtby for Thursday night’s 2-1 shootout victory over the Islanders, a game in which he stopped 35 of 36 shots through 65 minutes, then stoned Frans Neilsen, Brad Boyes and John Tavares in the shootout, spawning chants of "Holt-by!"
“He battles hard,” Troy Brouwer said “He works real hard in practice. He stays out afterward taking guys’ shots.
“He battles, he never gives up on play and that just shows the perseverance and willingness he has to win and that rubs off on our team. If we see him making huge pad saves those really lift your team and guys want to play for him when he’s playing like that.”
Since leading the Capitals to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season Holtby has become more than just an up-and-coming 23-year-old goaltender. He’s become a strong voice in the locker room, a rarity for a goalie his age. Following the Caps’ recent losses in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia he blamed himself for not coming up with the big saves when they were needed.
But after almost every victory this season he has credited his teammates for making his job easy, even when it’s not.
“We go as a unit,” Holtby said. “Your goaltender is only as good as your team, and your team is only as good as your goaltender. It’s never a case of one guy is the show. We go as a group and that’s why we win games.”