Braden Holtby wears Reebok Larceny legs pads, which is apropos, considering he is stealing the Washington Capitals’ Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series with the Boston Bruins. Yet, Holtby is not the first rookie goaltender to buoy Washington in the postseason. In fact, he is the third in the last four years.
Since Semyon Varlamov usurped Jose Theodore in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Rangers, the Caps have relied on goaltenders with no previous NHL postseason experience. Among Varlamov, Holtby and Michal Neuvirth, Washington’s 16 combined playoff victories by rookies in the last four years are one more than the rest of the NHL has combined in the same span (15 among Boston’s Tuukka Rask in 2010, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard in 2010 and Chicago’s Corey Crawford in 2011).
Throwing those rookies into a high-pressure situation is akin to a baptism by fire, but being thrust into such situations can have lasting positive effects on a young player’s development.
“It’s for all young guys,” head coach Dale Hunter said after Friday’s practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “When you get to play in the playoffs, the intensity is cranked up more than in the regular season, so when you get the feeling…what you have to do, by being in it, you just speed up the progress of your development.”
While Holtby has become the breakout star of this first-round series, Neuvirth was in the same position last season. Neuvirth entered the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs with no NHL postseason experience to his credit, but stymied the New York Rangers in the first round, stopping 140 of 148 shots in a five-game series win. Neuvirth struggled in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but kept the Caps in each of the four games they played in the series.
“Yeah, obviously it’s a different level than the regular season,” Neuvirth, who will dress for the first time in this series for Game 5 Saturday after dealing with a lower-body injury, said when asked if his experience last spring was the most important to his development thus far. “But you’ve got to approach every game the same. You’ve gotta be focused. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing in the Stanley Cup Final or the first game of the season. You’ve gotta play the same way the whole time.”
Earning stripes in the postseason is how good goaltenders became great ones, but while the future is bright for Holtby, he is only focusing on the present.
“It will tell in time,” Holtby said. “Right now, I’m focused on the present. You never know what’s gonna happen in the future. You just focus on what we have in front of us right now. And that’s Game 5 in Boston.”