The Capitals handed the desperate Bruins a 3-0 defeat Wednesday, solidifying their hold on second place in the Metropolitan Division and pushing Boston a little bit closer to the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The visiting Bruins once again were unable to solve Caps goalie Braden Holtby, who shut them out for the third time this season, and Washington is now 7-2-1 in their past 10 games.
Certainly, Holtby deserves the lion's share of the credit for his play this season. And certainly, Alex Ovechkin is the straw that stirs the drink for that franchise and has raised his game. But if we're talking about the biggest difference in Washington this season – the biggest acquisition/change the organization made last summer – we're not talking about either of Brooks Orpik or Matt Niskanen, their two high-priced free agent signings. We're also not talking about the first full season from rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov, although he's a nifty little player himself.
No, the person who has made the biggest difference this year for the Capitals only gets on the ice during practice, and has a salary that isn't governed by the league's salary cap. His name is Mitch Korn, and since joining the Caps after leaving Nashville, where he spent the previous 16 years in the same role for the Predators, Korn has had a significant calming influence on Holtby in a year when a poor showing from the 25-year-old could have spelled the end for him as a starter In Washington.
Remember, Holtby's numbers had taken a dip last season after a strong showing in 2012-13, and with the pressure that was on Ovechkin & Co. to win under a new management team this year, any struggling out of the gate for the young netminder might have forced the Caps into changing direction and making a trade for a veteran to come in as the new starter. But under Korn's direction, Holtby has made the most of the fresh start with Korn and head coach Barry Trotz, and the results have been superb: Holtby has played an incredible 72 games, posted nine shutouts, a 41-19-10 record, 2.21 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. Again, this all can't be chalked up to working with Korn, but the 57-year-old's incredible track record can't be denied – and people within the hockey world nod knowingly among themselves at Korn's impact on the youngster:
"Braden Holtby has been absolutely outstanding for the Capitals, and I think the biggest adjustment he’s made this year is having a new goaltender coach, Mitch Korn, who is a goaltending coach genius," TSN analyst and former NHL goalie Jamie McLennan told The Hockey News for its annual playoff preview edition. "Mitch has gotten Holtby to play much more efficiently. Holtby has got really good athleticism and you saw that last season as he was moving all over the ice, but under Mitch he uses that athleticism much more judiciously and his positioning is a lot stronger this season."
The effect Korn has had on Holtby doesn't just have an effect on the goalie, or the Capitals. In some ways, Korn is leading the way for better paydays and more respect for people in his particular line of work. As Panthers star goalie Roberto Luongo told THN last fall, he was shocked some teams still employed goaltending coaches on a part-time basis, but those days are likely numbered as owners see what Korn has done and look for their own goalie guru. The arms race tends to eventually filter down throughout the entire league, and just as the proliferation of assistant coaches eventually became a commonality among all NHL teams, so too will the focus on all the little areas that can make a difference to the on-ice product.
The level of competition around the league is such that teams are looking for any advantage they can get, and you can bet the success Korn is having isn't going unnoticed by rival franchises. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is going to set a new bar for head coaches' salaries this summer when he signs a lucrative contract, but the money that is being spent now – the pressure points franchises with financial might are looking to exploit to their advantage – involves coaching at all levels of the game. And with every impressive win Holtby and the Capitals rack up, the more teams (at least, the ones that aren't running on a shoestring budget) are likely to invest in their own Mitch Korn.