Monday, February 1, 2016

Braden Holtby stops pucks for a living

By Larry Wigge

You learn about good, old-fashioned down home country values when you interview Braden Holtby. Go through his answers and ...

Well, there's  nothing like where he stops pucks for a living and Washington D.C.?

"Absolutely none," Holtby laughs. "Marshall, Saskatchewan, is about 500 people. We have one paved road, one stop sign. No lights. We have a school, a post office and one convenience store. I grew up on a farm close to there."

Then, you ask him about the number he wears on the back of his uniform. No. 70. Not the usual No. 1 or No. 30. Listen to what significance he has to wearing No. 70.

"No, they just gave it to me at my first camp," he says. "I got a surprise call-up my first year, played a few games and people started to buy the jersey. And I felt too bad to change it ... after I'd seen a couple of people pay money for the jersey, so I stuck with it."

How many people would take time out to think what he would be costing them if he would change his number? Not a lot.

Braden Holtby is athletic. He stands 6-2 and weigh 203 pounds and he stops pucks coming at him going more than 100 mph. And he does it quite well as his 30 victories in 39 stars at the All-Star break attest, not to his 2.07 goals-against average. The Washington Capitals netminder has lost only once since October 16, going 20-0-2 during one stretch. Holtby's streak ended one short of the franchise record of 23 games (20-0-3) set by Jose Theodore in 2009-10.

What Holtby has become this season is a legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate.

"I've never been that goalie that has come up with the most amount of natural skill," Holtby said. "I was a late pick, I was never really a Team Canada goalie or anything like that. I knew that if I worked hard enough and tried to get the most out of myself, I'd be happy at the end of the day if I was better than I was the day before."

He was a fourth-round pick, 93rd overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, who took over under emergency condition in the playoffs of 2011-12 after Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth were both sidelined with injuries and Holtby was called. He went 7-7 with a 1.95 goals-against average.

Holtby stopped 44 shots in a first-round series against Boston -- Ken Dryden made 46 stops for Montreal in a 4-2 win against Boston on April 16, 1971.

"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."

"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."

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."

Goaltenders are a strange breed. Really strange sometimes. Well ...

In fact, Holtby credits that decision, made by his father, Greg, for developing many of the skills that led him to the NHL and this summer’s big pay day. His father played for the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League in the mid-1980s. As a product of the pre-butterfly era that meant a strong emphasis on skating at a young age for his son.

So rather than send Braden to position-specific schools at an early age, Greg insisted his son also play out as long as he could. As a result, the younger Holtby was still splitting time between forward and goal until he was 12.

"He really encouraged me to play as a forward and a goaltender until I was forced by the team to make a decision, so I played both up until peewee, which really helped develop my skating, helped develop my puck handling, all those other things you wouldn’t really get by choosing to be just a goaltender at a really young age," he said and then added, "I was always confused back then why he wanted me to keep playing both when all I really wanted to be was a goaltender. But now it's one of my biggest benefits."

But growing up wanting to like his dad wasn't enough for Holtby. At 16, he was sent for meet with John Stevenson, a goaltender coach.

Said Holtby, "I reached a level where dad didn't know enough about any more with the technical stuff and he was learning at the same stage I was."

"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," Olie 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."

Dave Prior, Kolzig and Arturs Irbe, the goalie coaches at Washington were nothing compared to what Mitch Korn put him through after Korn came in with coach Barry Trotz at the start of the 2014-15 season.

Holtby answered his new mentor with skeptism, but the results were simply amazing. A 41 win season, plus nine shutouts and a 2.32 goals-against average.

Holtby claims that Korn sees the game better than anyone he's ever met -- even with the same quirky props: miniature pucks, white pucks and screen boards that Stevenson first showed him.

Korn has done wonders for Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne, so his credentials are obvious. You don't often see the video work between them. But the give and take are essential.

"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."

Korn noticed that Holtby avoided getting hit with the puck in practice by making saves in a way he wouldn't during a game. Korn wanted Holtby to focus on stopping the puck instead of handling it.

"The changes he was trying to adjust to and make are like trying to change the engine in your car during the Indianapolis 500," Korn said. "You can change your tires, but you can't change the engine and yet, that's what we were asking him to do.

"He was trying to change things as he was playing in season. At the same time, it was really good for me, because it provided me with the footage and the examples we needed to correct."

Korn said Holtby was reaching to make saves. What Korn wanted Holtby to learn was body control, for his limbs to work together as a unit. That started to make even the tough saves look easy.

Holtby and Korn have a lot in common other than the puck-stopping position. They share the same birthdate.

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.

"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."

Goaltending is a position really unlike anything in sports. You have to let things come to you.

Braden Holtby is learning that in a nutshell every day he comes to the rink.

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