About an hour before tonight’s playoff opener against the New York Rangers – before the red-faced fans take their seats and the music blares throughout Verizon Center – Braden Holtby will leave the Capitals dressing room.
He will walk to the home bench and stand behind it, leaning on his goalie stick and zoning into a world only he knows.
He will see Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan and Michael Del Zotto bearing down on him.
He will peer through arms and legs and sticks and skates to find pucks coming at him at 110 mph.
Holtby’s visualization exercises might last only 20 minutes, but they will take him quickly through tonight’s hockey game.
“I can’t visualize the entire game,” Holtby says with a laugh. “It would take too long. But I do visualize plays in a game and how I’ll react.”
At 23, Holtby is a student of the mind games that come with being an NHL goaltender.
Unlike many goalies he is chatty the morning of games, then zones in as the clock ticks toward game time. [CSN’s coverage of tonight’s 7:30 game begins at 6 p.m.].
Capitals goaltending instructor Olie Kolzig says every goalie has his routine.
“I came to the rink three hours early, I had a coffee, a stretch and I did about 30 minutes of visualization,” Kolzig said. “That was the extent of my preparation.
“But every goalie is different. Some guys don’t talk before a game. I had to talk; that’s the way I burned off nervous energy. Other guys stick to themselves. That’s why goalies get a bad name sometimes. They see guys kind of off in their own worlds trying to focus.”
Last year, Kolzig wondered if Holtby’s pregame rituals might become too taxing for him, especially in the playoffs, where a goalie might be forced to play every other night with the chance of multiple overtimes.
But Kolzig also recognizes when not to mess with something that works.
“Whatever it takes for him to get ready, as long as over the long haul it doesn’t start to affect him, and I don’t see that with Braden,” he said. “I think it’s a routine for him that he’s used the lat few years.
“I think at some point, as he gets more comfortable playing at the NHL level and gets that experience under his belt, some of those things will start falling by the way side. Now it’s probably just a superstitious, ritualistic thing that gets him prepared for the game.”
Experience – or lack thereof -- is something you will hear often during these playoffs.
It’s something Holtby was confronted with last year, when he went up against Stanley Cup champion Tim Thomas in his first career playoff game. Holtby outplayed Thomas to win that series in seven games and matched Henrk Lundqvist save for save before falling by one goal in Game 7 in New York.
Tonight will be Holtby’s 15th career playoff game. Lundqvist will be making his 56th career start in the postseason.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Holtby said when asked about his own playoff experience. “They give you games and you play. It doesn’t matter how many games you played before, it doesn’t make it any easier.
“When it comes down to it you just have to perform and believe that we have the better team. You throw experience out the window. You just play.”
Kolzig said too much negative attention was placed on Holtby and Michal Neuvirth when the Capitals got off to a 2-8-1 start and both goalie saw their goals-against average swell above 4.00.
“We went through that stretch early on when it was a cluster out there and for the most part the goalies were the victims of it,” Kolzig said. “Now we’re seeing the goaltenders benefitting because the guys in front of them are playing so much better as a unit.”
Last season, Holtby went through two rounds of the playoffs without ever losing back-to-back games. He said that is as much a credit to the team’s focus as to his own.
“The one good thing about last year is that were never blown out in a loss,” Holtby said of the string of one-goal games. “They’re the hardest ones to come back from. We know we were able to come back last year from losses. But this year there will be different challenges for us to overcome.”
The first is a New York Rangers team that won five of its final six games down the stretch. The Caps enter the playoffs as the NHL’s hottest team, going 15-2-2 in their final 19.
“The team you’re on you always feel is the best you’ve ever been on,” Holtby said. “I believe we have the best chance to win the Stanley Cup, a better chance than we did last year. We believe in ourselves in here but we have to go out and win games.”