WASHINGTON -- Goalies are weird. This isn't breaking news. In a sport whose athletes are creatures of routine, all the way down to the manner in which they apply tape to their sticks, goalies are even more habitual in their preparation.
Braden Holtby is one such creature of habit, to the point that one Washington Capitals blog actually chronicled "Holtbyisms," or the quirks inherent to the team's 28-year-old netminder. For example, his pregame visualizations, which are the stuff of viral videos, as Holtby stands with his hands atop his goalie stick, jerking his body side to side as he envisions the techniques he has honed for that game.
The routine extends off the ice. Unlike many goalies, Holtby meets with the media on game days, out of habit. He does many things out of habit.
"Goalies are different than [skaters]," Capitals defenseman John Carlson said with a laugh. "He's focused. He's going to do his thing that he does every other day. He's going to play guitar after practice, winding himself down. I don't know what he does when he gets home, but when he gets to the rink the next day, he's going to be in the same mode that he always is in Game 1 or Game 7. The same player. The same routine. That's what works for him, and that's what we expect of him."
Wait ... guitar? Has Carlson ever jammed with Holtby?
"Jammed? No. Listened? Yes."
What does Braden Holtby play to get him in the right mindset?
"Jack Johnson. That's one of his go-tos. That's a pretty good assessment of him as an individual."
Indeed it is: Laidback, flip-flop, acoustic guitar pop for a goalie who always seems to keep an even emotional keel, no matter what postseason calamity has befallen the Capitals. Or, in the context of this season, remaining calm and carrying on even when he basically lost his crease to backup Philipp Grubauer before reclaiming it as a starter in Game 3 of the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"I didn't see any change. He came in. He had the same exact preparation he's always done. I didn't notice any negativity coming from him. He's the same positive and supportive guy that he always is," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "It's probably easier said than done when you're used to being the guy that time of the year."
Holtby's been "the guy" for the past four seasons, sporting a 225-89-35 record overall for the Capitals. His career save percentage is .919. His career goals-against average is 2.41. He will make $6.1 million against the cap through 2020, having signed a five-year contract extension that started in 2015.
But this season was, by far, his most rickety as Capitals starter. Holtby posted a .907 save percentage and a 2.99 GAA in 54 games. Grubauer, his 26-year-old understudy, had his best season: 15-10-3 with a .923 save percentage in 35 games. Doubts crept in about Holtby, though his supporters vehemently defended him.
"He's been very consistent for about three years. It was just a tough stretch, some bad luck. You don't lose your skills overnight," said Mitch Korn, the longtime goalie guru who groomed Holtby with the Capitals.
Grubauer earned the majority of starts down the stretch for the Capitals, and coach Barry Trotz started him in Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs' opening round, despite Holtby's stellar postseason numbers (.932 career save percentage in the playoffs).
"They've been 1A and 1B for us all year," Orpik said. "People have confidence in both guys, and their confidence pushes out through the rest of the lineup. We're going to make mistakes. Those guys are going to bail us out most of the time."
Grubauer couldn't bail the Capitals out in Games 1 and 2 against the Blue Jackets, stopping 41 of 49 shots. Holtby replaced him during Game 2 and hasn't given up the crease since.
Was he worried that Grubauer had surpassed him? That he wouldn't be the Capitals' starter in the playoffs?
"It never crossed my mind," Holtby said. "A lot of it is you just break it down. Some things are circumstantial, some things you can do better. It was not as bad as everything thought it was. But it's never as good as people think it is sometimes, either. It's just a little adjustment, here and there. That's just the way hockey goes sometimes. Sometimes the pucks go the right way, and sometimes they don't."
What went wrong?
"I just put too much pressure on myself to be perfect, and that never works," Holtby said. "It's just one of those things you look back on, and you realize those little adjustments mentally, and physically, can make all the difference."
He hasn't been perfect in the playoffs since he started Game 3 against the Blue Jackets. There were three straight games in which he gave up three goals, including Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference semifinals, in which Holtby had an active role in a third-period meltdown. But he's 5-1 in the games he has started, and he was stellar in Game 2, stopping 32 of 33 Penguins shots.
"I felt pretty good," he said. "I've been feeling pretty much the same the last little while. I got some fortunate bounces through traffic and stuff."
Trotz credited Holtby with playing a huge role in the win. "It's confidence. It starts there," Trotz said. "Any time you have a goaltender who's playing well in this sport, it gives your team confidence. It gives them trust, it gives them confidence [and] a more aggressive posture when you're playing the game. When that's not there, you tend to not be as aggressive."
One gets the sense that the Capitals will need Holtby at his best if they're finally going to surpass their postseason tormentors, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
There's this great scene in Michael Mann's classic crime film "Heat" in which Al Pacino's cop and Robert DeNiro's thief meet at a diner to trade notes, acknowledge a mutual respect and declare that only one of them can win in the end.
Penguins goalie Matt Murray was 1 year old when "Heat" was released. As a result, the reference is lost on him, and he notes that the only time he has conversed with Braden Holtby away from the rink was at a two-top table over some java a few years ago.
"We went for coffee one time. That was it. It was after the first series, during the season, at some point," Murray said.
Murray's Penguins have thwarted Holtby's Capitals in consecutive playoff seasons, with Murray winning the Stanley Cup in both of them. Murray has the championships, while Holtby has the personal achievements, with a Vezina Trophy in 2016 and a spot as a finalist in 2017. He also has the respect of his counterpart on the Penguins.
"He's a guy that I look up to," Murray said. "Wanted to pick his brain for a little bit."
As it is for the rest of the Capitals, the Penguins are Braden Holtby's white whale. He has never beaten them in a series, which is to say that he has never been the determining factor in a series against them.
Holtby downplayed the chance for redemption before the series.
"We're excited to be in the same situation this year, having another shot at winning the Stanley Cup," he said. "Obviously, we knew chances were we had to go through them at some point. For us, it doesn't matter who we're playing. We have to win 16 [games]."
Through two games against the Penguins, or at least five of six periods, Holtby has risen to the challenge.
"He has been rock-solid. Really making the routine saves look really easy. He's mixed in some big saves on better scoring chances, and it gives you a lot of confidence, and you can just focus on your own game knowing that he's going to be there for you," Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "He's been sharp, and that's what you need in the playoffs. You need your goalie to be really good, especially to beat a good team."
The Penguins are a good team. And after a season of uncertainty, Braden Holtby has re-established himself as a good goalie, earning the trust of his teammates in the postseason.
"That skill set doesn't go away. He's always had a really strong work ethic. Everyone has down parts of their career or their season, and he's no different," Orpik said. "And it's probably too much on the goalie, whether it's positive or negative, because he's the last guy back there."
And, positive or negative, every goalie is one bad bounce away from going from playoff hero to liability.
"Goaltending isn't black or white. There's no right or wrong way," Holtby said. "Every time, you're just trying to find the best percentages. But like any odds, those percentages can go the other way."