By Larry Wigge
Most of the time Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby is somewhere out there on another planet in another a different solar system. He's cool and calm ... but a little quirky.
Plain and simple, Holtby has come out of nowhere in this year's playoffs.
Standing tall in goal. Twirling the stick, watching the droplets shot from a water bottle, shuffling around the top of the goal crease, that thing where his eyes track back and forth looking out on an empty ice surface. His habits might make good television, but not everyone loves to watch them. Doing deep breathing exercise training and visualization exercises help take him to a place of serenity. Somewhere ...
"It could be a beach or I could be skating on a pond back home as a kid," explained Holtby. "It brings you back down to earth and relaxes you."
Holtby has been practicing with visualization and controlling his heart rate since he was first introduced to sports psychologist and goaltending coach John Stevenson as a 16-year-old member of the Saskatoon Blades.
There isn't a much tougher job than goaltending ... and Holtby was asked to take on a whopper. No. 1 goalie Tomas Vokoun and backup Michal Neuvirth were both sidelined with injuries. In the playoffs, all of the heat was squarely on the 6-1, 209 pounder.
"He's played well, you know? Under extreme pressure, he had to go up against Tim Thomas, you know, Stanley Cup winner and now Henrik Lundqvist, who could be MVP of the league," former Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "He battled tooth-and-nail even with them. I'm proud of him."
Long before Game 7 against the Rangers, Holtby was handling himself as a veteran rather than a 22-year-old rookie. He emerged as one of the unexpected stars of the postseason as he started each of Washington’s 14 games, stopping 429 of the 459 shots he faced through two rounds for a .935 save percentage and 1.95 goals-against average.
Holtby acknowledges he is a work in progress in everything from knowing when to handle the puck to learning how to dial down his emotions.
"I always dealt with nerves and trying to do too much and I always fought with myself in my mind," Holtby explained. "I experimented with some mental exercises. Some of it didn't work for me ... and some of it does.
"It's still hard to find that balance. Not all nerves are bad, but you want to be calm and bring your heart rate down so you don't wear yourself out."
Take it from a former goaltender Olie Kolzig, the Capitals associate goaltender coach.
"The thing with Braden was just consistency. That was the thing we were worried about: Could he do it night in and night out? What really impressed me most about him in the playoffs is his resiliency," Kolzig said. "Whether he gives up a bad goal or has a bad game, hell come back and make that next big save or hell come back and win the next game. The mental toughness, the resiliency and the calmness, its been impressive to watch.
"I just think he's playing in the moment. He's not looking in the past, he's not looking too far ahead."
Finding the right exercises or visualization was important to Braden Holtby ... and to his father Greg, a former goalie who played two years with the WHL's Saskatoon Blades in the mid-1980s. Braden was strapping on the pads in his family's basement by the age of 3.
Braden Holtby's father set up a backyard rink under a large spotlight so he could train well into the night. When Holtby went inside, he spent countless additional hours firing pucks off the walls in the family basement.
"I had a way when I was young of shooting on myself somehow. I'd shoot off the wall and try to save it," he recalled. "The walls are kind of looking a little worse for wear now.
"I played hockey all day. There is not much else to do in Saskatchewan."
The Capitals selected the Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, in the fourth round, 93rd overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft from the Saskatoon Blades.
"I think it's a big help to young goalies," Caps goalie coach Dave Prior said of having a parent who played the position. "You're dealing with a parent that understands what the pressures are and what the goalie is going through. Even if they're not technically equipped to help their son, it's someone who just gets it."
All of his time spent in D.C., Holtby was under pressure -- none so much as the night he made 44 saves in Game 4 of the first round against Boston. The saves were the most in a regulation playoff win for a rookie goaltender since Ken Dryden made 46 stops for Montreal in a 4-2 win against Boston on April 16, 1971.
Said Holtby, "My type of fun is intensity, is big games, big moments. I might not show it on my face, but that's the way I've always been. I've always had the most fun when I'm battling and competing."
Or rather a calming influence on his teammates.
"He makes it very calm for the rest of us," said forward Brooks Laich, after the 44-shot barrage. "If we gave up a shot, we know Holtz if gonna cover. When he does leave a rebound, and I didn't see many tonight, we know guys are gonna clear it.
"When you have a goaltender playing well, it really, really settles your team down. He was a leader for us tonight."
Holtby played with the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL, did a few stints for the Caps as a backup goaltender (he suited up and was on the bench for five games but did not play) and moved back and forth to the Hershey Bears. He had a starting role on the Bears when Neuvirth was called up to D.C. after Semyon Varlamov's injury and finished his season with the team when it won the Calder Cup. Holtby led AHL rookie goaltenders in the goals-against-average (2.32) and save percentage (.917.) and played in the ECHL All-Star Game.
In his effort to gain an edge over the competition, Holtby's pre-game ritual involves visualization: rehearsing his moves without a player or puck. He recently had Lasik eye surgery because his sweat used to interfere with his contacts.
There is a line that Prior draws from patience to structure to consistency, something Holtby initially struggled with.
"There are too many good shooters," said Holtby. "It has been a challenge. With my personality it's always been kind of to do things, always wanted to take things in my own hands.
"Goaltending is a position really unlike anything in sports. You have to let things come to you."
That is at the core of what Prior teaches: stay patient and make the shooter blink first.
"A good shooter will take advantage of your lack of patience," Prior said. "We don't try to make the saves, we try to make the shooters beat us. We're keeping the pressure on the shooter to beat us with a great shot. The foundation to our philosophy of defending the goal is that patience."
While at Hershey Braden Holtby's goalie mask had the roller coaster painted on it as a tribute to one of the rides at the Hershey Park amusement park in central Pennsylvania.
"It's just a Hershey thing," he said. "When I had to get my mask painted, I knew I was going to be playing in Hershey for the better part of the year, so I thought it was something creative to represent Hershey."
Eight months later, the roller coaster is a symbol of the wild and crazy ride this season has been for the 22-year-old, who has gone from training camp afterthought to one of the top rookies in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Some ride for Holtby and the Capitals.
"It's disappointing. We really did believe in here that we had the team to do it all," Holtby said. "We really can't hang our head at the effort.
"Little things, inches. Its what, 13 out of 14 one-goal games? We gave ourselves a chance to win every night."