Sometimes, it’s the simple things that separate great athletic performers from potentially great ones. Goaltender Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals is now a great performer. The Capitals, having just clinched the President's Trophy, are a strong favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final from the Eastern Conference. When that happens, it will cement Holtby's status as a true elite NHL goaltender.
When Holtby first burst on the scene during the 2012 playoffs, he was an aggressive young goaltender with a fierce glove hand and some very entertaining habits. The ensuing years brought coaching changes, style questions, and inconsistency. When Barry Trotz became Capitals head coach for the 2014-2015 season, among the first things he did was invite Mitch Korn, his goalie coach in Nashville, to join him. Mitch Korn is a true guru, having spawned a generation of goalie coaches at all levels (they call themselves "Children of the Korn"). I haven’t been sitting in on his sessions with Holtby, but their work seems to have been pretty successful.
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On this final save in a 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators back in December, Holtby makes what appears to be a completely routine play. It isn't.
The Senators are on the tail end of a 5-minute major power play, having just scored their first goal of the game on a deflection by Bobby Ryan. Mike Hoffman shoots from the center left blue line, and the puck goes wide to Holtby’s right.
The shot bounces off the end boards behind the net to Holtby's opposite (glove) side, and the Senators’ Cody Ceci backhands the puck across the goal mouth from just below the goal line.
Holtby is in a butterfly slide, transitioning to a glove-side RVH. The puck rebounds off of the top end of the thigh rise on Holtby's right pad, and out.
2012 Holtby might have been less compact in his butterfly slide, or more aggressively reaching toward the puck, and Ceci’s jam might have ricocheted in through his 5-hole. 2015-16 Holtby has maintained excellent ice seal, and the puck rebounds quite far off of his pad, although it slides directly to Senators' sniper Mark Stone.
Stone is just above the face-off dot to the left of the goal. Holtby simply pushes off of the post, squares to Stone’s right-handed shot, and takes his stance. Stone holds the puck, correctly anticipating at least a partial screen from Capitals (now Maple Leafs) forward Brooks Laich.
Holtby is on angle, at a mid-crease depth. Bobby Ryan is positioned to his blocker side, presenting a back-side pass option for Stone.
Stone holds the puck, correctly anticipating at least a partial screen from Capitals (now Maple Leafs) forward Brooks Laich. As Stone delays, Holtby simply holds his ground. Here again, the younger Holtby might have responded by advancing forward more aggressively, possibly opening holes through his body, or opening the net for the back-door pass. Instead, he is absolutely rock solid, squarely positioned for all threats, and ready for action. Stone releases his shot when he thinks he has his screen, but Holtby isn’t fooled.
When the shot finally reaches him, he absorbs the puck completely and cleanly, without a hint of a rebound. Game over.
Holtby can still be spectacular when he needs to be, but he is now a mature goaltender who understands how to use his skill and athleticism to get hit squarely in the chest 20 times a game.
Braden Holtby, simple as can be.