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From playoff backup to Conn Smythe Trophy contender, Holtby emerges as Capitals’ savior

Braden Holtby's rocky campaign led to a seat on the bench to start the post-season, but since taking the crease back in the second game of the first round, the Capitals netminder has put Washington on the cusp of a Stanley Cup.

There are a lot of reasons to cheer for both teams in the Stanley Cup final, one of which is the men who occupy the blue paint at both ends of the ice. With Braden Holtby and Marc-Andre Fleury, the 2018 championship series features a combination of the two most likeable, lowest maintenance and least bizarre goaltenders of all time.

Fleury has received much of the attention for his pedigree and how he was so instrumental in bringing the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to the final, but a little lost amid the star performers on the Washington Capitals is the play of Holtby, a man who lost the crease to start the playoffs and has been a legitimate Conn Smythe Trophy contender since getting it back. His diving save on Alex Tuch with 1:59 to go in Game 2 of the final preserved a 3-2 victory and provided one of the defining moments of the post-season.

After years of setting the gold standard for goaltending in the NHL, the 28-year-old native of Lloydminster, Sask., finds himself one victory away from winning his first Stanley Cup. That it would come after a season filled with uncertainty and struggle would make a Cup triumph not only a vindication for Holtby, but also a testament to his ability to deal with adversity and turn a negative situation into a positive one. “I never really get down on myself,” said Holtby, who leads all playoff goalies with more than six games in high-danger save percentage at .847. “I really look at adversity as a chance to better yourself.”

If that’s the truly the case, Holtby probably improved more this season than any other in his NHL career. One year after posting the best save percentage of his career, Holtby put up his worst numbers in 2017-18. He played fewer games in a full season than he had since his rookie year and struggled to find his form in many of them. And when the playoffs began two months ago, Capitals coach Barry Trotz made it clear that he thought the Capitals were in better hands with backup Philipp Grubauer by naming Grubauer his starter for Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That ill-advised decision lasted all of one-plus games. Holtby came in relief of Grubauer in Game 2 of the Columbus series and has been a huge factor in the Capitals being by far the best team in the NHL since then. With his pedigree, perhaps Holtby had earned the right to take umbrage at being stiffed and had he done so, the Capitals might be on the sidelines right now and Trotz would likely be out of a job. But Holtby came in without an agenda and with the same calm demeanor he displayed when he was on the bench.

“I’ve seen other teammates where an individual situation becomes a distraction for everybody else and he was the exact opposite,” said teammate Brooks Orpik. “There are a lot of guys who go in the other direction and when they get another opportunity, because of that bad attitude they don’t perform well when they get another opportunity. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him.”

There’s a lot of that going around the Capitals dressing room these days. Teammates are raving about his play, of course, but also echoed Orpik’s sentiments on how well Holtby handled what could have been a disastrous situation. And this is where common sense and a healthy perspective come in. The thing is, Holtby doesn’t even blame Trotz for making the move. Grubauer had played well down the stretch and Holtby was basically mediocre. There was one stretch in February where he gave up 19 goals in four starts.

“I wasn’t surprised the way the end of the year was going,” Holtby said. “I’ve always respected the coach’s opinion on what is best for the team and in my opinion, that was the right decision. You just go to work and be a good teammate and try to be ready if you’re called upon.”

As a perfectionist, Holtby is often also his own worst critic. He acknowledged that with the Capitals in such a state of flux going into this season and the general notion that their championship for a window was closing quickly, if not already slammed shut, prompted him to go outside himself and try to do too much to win games for his team. More often than not, that’s a recipe for disaster for a professional athlete.

“I felt like if I could do more we could still be that great team,” Holtby said. “At the start of the year you’re letting in three goals a game and it’s not going as well as in the past and you’re trying to find ways go give the team a better chance to win every game and then you start looking at impossible situations to get better at. I think my main downfall is I was just trying to do too much and trying to be perfect, trying to take away every possible way it could go in instead of just sticking to the principles of percentages and stick to your habits and not worry about what could possibly go wrong trying to defend the impossible.”

With a chance to win the Stanley Cup in Game 5 Thursday night in Vegas, Holtby now finds himself on the verge of something a lot of people, perhaps even himself, didn’t fathom would be possible at the start of the season, or even the start of the playoffs.

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