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Holtby shining wherever he tends goal

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Braden Holtby has become well accustomed to shuttling between the AHL's Hershey Bears and the parent Washington Capitals this season, so when a last-minute phone call from Washington came during the final weekend of March, the second-year goaltender tried to take it in stride.

That's not to say that the experience to come wouldn't be a bit of a whirlwind, though.

Holtby and the Bears were in Glens Falls, N.Y., on March 25, preparing for a game against the Adirondack Phantoms when word came that Holtby's services would likely be needed by the Capitals the next night in Montreal.

The 21-year-old Holtby caught a ride for what was conveniently only a three-hour drive north, and sure enough, he was in a Capitals uniform and between the pipes at the Bell Centre on March 26.

That was only the beginning, though, as Holtby made the most of the opportunity by stopping 18 shots for his second career NHL shutout in a 2-0 win over the Canadiens.

"You can't really think of a bigger contrast. That's the type of game we play. You could be in Glens Falls one day and Montreal the next," Holtby said. "You have to take it for what it is. I tried to prepare for the game in Montreal as best I could, and obviously the guys played outstanding, so it helped me out a lot."

Holtby's weekend wasn't finished quite yet, though. He was assigned back to the AHL following the shutout victory, traveled to Hershey, and tended goal for the Bears on March 27 in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

"It was a pretty crazy weekend," he said of the Glens Falls-to-Montreal-to-Hershey junket.

While Holtby was bouncing all around the Northeast on that particular weekend, his hockey career has been trending decidedly upward since he arrived on the professional scene following a 40-16-4 campaign for Saskatoon in the Western Hockey League in 2008-09.

A fourth-round draft pick by Washington in 2008, Holtby joined Hershey after his junior season ended and looked on as the Bears captured the 2009 Calder Cup championship. As a rookie, he split the 2009-10 campaign between Hershey and its ECHL affiliate in South Carolina, earning more AHL time as the year progressed and eventually backing up Michal Neuvirth as the Bears captured a second straight Cup.

In a similar fashion, Holtby has spent this season constantly moving between the AHL and NHL, all the while proving that no matter where he suits up, he belongs. 

"That was my goal last year -- to make sure I gave myself the best opportunity to show I could play in the AHL," Holtby said. "This year, it's one step up -- I want to try and prove that I can play in the NHL. At the same time, all that talk aside, I just have to take it one game at a time and focus on how to get better."

Hershey head coach Mark French, who guided the Bears to the Calder Cup title in 2010 after serving as an assistant coach on the 2009 squad, has seen numerous positive attributes in his young goaltender over the past two years.

"The first thing as a coach that you see is his level of competiveness and mental toughness as a goalie. You saw that right off the bat with him and you continue to see it development," French said.

"Then there's his athleticism as a goaltender -- not only does he make the saves you expect him to make, but he's certainly capable of making game-changing saves. He's an unbelievable puck-handler, and our game changes considerably when he's in the net because we know how good he is at playing the puck."

According to French, Holtby's rookie AHL campaign was marked by early success -- he was a remarkable 16-2-1 by the end of February last season -- before inconsistencies crept into his game late.

Aside from three appearances early in the 2010 postseason, Holtby took a seat on the bench and watched Neuvirth take the team on his shoulders.

"I think it was important for him to see what Michal did last year when Michal came in, took the bull by the horns and led us to another Calder Cup," French said.

"I think he kind of sat back and watched that, especially Michal's mental toughness and how he was able to develop some consistency. He's come into this year with that mindset, and when he's here, he's been excellent."

Holtby is certainly enjoying a stellar sophomore campaign at both the AHL and NHL levels -- he's 16-9-2 (2.27, .921) with five shutouts for the Bears and 10-2-2 (1.79, .934) with a pair of whitewashes for Washington.

A turning point in his fortunes, though, came in November at the end of his first stint with the Capitals.

After making his NHL debut in relief vs. Boston on Nov. 5 and putting up solid numbers in three straight appearances, Holtby drew the start in Atlanta on Nov. 19 and was promptly torched for three goals on five shots before Neuvirth replaced him only 9:07 into what would become a 5-0 loss.

Three nights later, the Caps were in New Jersey and Holtby again started in net. It didn't turn out any better. Though he played the entire game this time, he surrendered five goals on 18 shots, Washington suffered another 5-0 setback, and Holtby was soon bound for Hershey to figure things out. 

"My first call-up, I don't think I approached it right -- I think I changed things from Hershey to up in Washington," he said. "The last couple times up, I've really wanted to focus on doing the same things I was doing here to prepare, and to not put too much pressure on myself, just focus on the game."

In the meantime, Holtby worked in Hershey with goaltending coach Dave Prior on improving areas of his game which were exposed in those back-to-back tough losses, and on refocusing the 6-foot-1, 202-pound netminder's mindset and approach.

"That was a big mental hurdle for him. We weren't concerned when he came down, but it was certainly a talking point," French said.

"Braden was still confident even when he struggled in those two starts that he was more than capable of playing at the NHL level, so it didn't faze him. But at the same time, I think Dave refocused him into areas where he needed to improve his game. It was a real motivating factor that when he did get the call again, he wanted to improve, and he certainly did."

Sure enough, Holtby has made nine NHL appearances since that time and hasn't lost any of them in regulation, the only blemish coming in a 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Rangers on Jan. 24. He's surrendered one goal or fewer in seven of the nine outings, including two shutouts.

"It was a blessing in disguise, the games in Atlanta and Jersey," Holtby said. "I had two games before that where I figured that I could play in that League and be a help to the team, and after those rough two starts, I kind of realized that there's a lot to be learned and it's not going to be easy. So I came (to Hershey) and really tried to focus on what had been making me successful on a consistent basis."

In a Capitals organization which already features a pair of promising young goaltenders at the NHL level in Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, Holtby has managed to push his name into the conversation with his impressive play down the stretch.

Not only that, he's had the fortune of following two postseason races for the price of one.

"That's kind of the beauty of it all. I've spent enough time with both teams that I feel comfortable and I care about what the outcome is in each game," said the native of Lloydminster, Sask. "You have that bond that you get after being with the guys for a while. Whichever team I'm with, I'm 100 percent in the playoff push and trying to put my heart on the line for the team."

As French noted, organizations with less depth in net would probably already have Holtby penciled in as an NHL regular. But his coach feels that Holtby still has at least one more box left on the checklist, something he's been yearning for from the sidelines the past two springs.

"You're always happy to be part of a Calder Cup team -- last year he was a big part of our regular season and then was able to watch Michal (in the playoffs)," French said.

"But at the same time, I think that's kind of driven him further that he wants to be the guy to lead a playoff team. We're extremely confident, we think he's got a lot of the make-up to allow us to go a long way, and we know we'll probably have to rely on him to be our playoff MVP if we're going to make a run."

Whether he helps lead Hershey to a third straight Calder Cup or not, Holtby sure seems to have primed himself to continue moving up the professional ladder.

"I think he's opened a lot of eyes that he's right there with (Neuvirth and Varlamov)," French said. "Maybe he doesn't have the same body of work yet in terms of NHL experience, but I know the organization is extremely confident in him. He's put himself right in there."