Capitals' Holtby solved struggles by getting more comfortable letting in goals; Kempny out for season

Braden Holtby 's journey back to the starter's net, to being considered one of the best goaltenders in the NHL , ironically started with accepting that he was going to get scored on more. This time last year, Holtby was just piecing together how his season had gone so wrong, struggling so much that the former Vezina Trophy winner had been unseated as the Washington Capitals ' top netminder going into the playoffs.

The roster upheaval going into the 2017-18 campaign meant that Holtby had watched good friends depart — something he admitted affected him on the ice — and also that the team had parted with "a couple key defensive players," Holtby said. The Capitals steadily adapted to that with a style that created more offensively but led to more scoring chances the other way, too.


"We had to find a little bit of a different identity to get the best in ourselves," Holtby said. "So sometimes that is opening it up and letting our skill have a little bit more freedom because maybe that was going to have to be our main strength. That just took a little bit of an adjustment for me, that three goals might be what it takes now instead of two-against."

It all eventually brought out the best in Holtby, though the playoffs have always had a knack for that. Taking back the starting job in Game 3 of the Capitals' first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets , Holtby backstopped Washington to a franchise-first Stanley Cup with a .922 save percentage and a 2.16 goals-against average. A goaltender who creates confidence for his team with his calm demeanor in net, Holtby has never seemed more zen, more self-assured than after last season's trials. Just as the Capitals have started to ramp up their play for another run at a championship, so has Holtby with a .916 save percentage and a 2.31 goals-against average since the start of March. His career .929 save percentage in the playoffs is the third-best all-time.


"I think I've always taken the approach to play every game as if it's the same, so I think that translates into the playoffs, where I think a lot of people think there's another level they can get to in the playoffs," Holtby said. "But that's just a fictional thing. You're trying to do the best every game, trying to build up for the whole season, so it comes naturally in the playoffs instead of thinking you're going to turn it on at a certain point.

"I guess that's why I've always felt comfortable playing in it, because I think if there's a certain other level you can get to, then you're cheating yourself during the regular season. I've always just tried to play as good as I can every game, treat every game the same. That usually makes the pressures and the things in playoffs a little easier."

Holtby wouldn't say it was putting too much pressure on himself that caused his regular-season metrics to nosedive last season - he had an .873 save percentage and a 4.62 goals-against average in February, which is what led to then-backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer getting more starts down the stretch - but "I was trying to do too much, and even though you think you can do more than you're capable of, that's when you start making mistakes," Holtby said. As the Capitals were figuring out how to give goaltenders fits with more lateral plays, an approach that focused more on shot quality than volume, Holtby was learning how to stop opponents from doing the same to him while also acknowledging that he wouldn't always be able to. Scoring league-wide is up, and the adjustments for Holtby were small, just holding his edges a little longer.

All the while, Washington's locker room saw a consummate professional and a supportive teammate, even as he was relegated to the bench for the first two playoff games. The Capitals weren't surprised, but that became a rallying point when he won the starting job back ahead of the third contest, with Washington already down two games in the series.

"A goalie like that you're always going to have respect for, but I think the biggest thing for him is that he's a competitive guy," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "No matter if it's a game or a practice, he wants to stop every puck, which I think is the most important thing about him. So I'm sure he wasn't satisfied with the situation last year at this point, but at the same time, championship goalies like that, that's what they do. ... He really stepped up there, which I think is probably one of the biggest reasons we won."

There won't be any question as to who the Capitals' starting goaltender is for these playoffs. The past year has given Washington a greater understanding for what it has in Holtby, and Holtby has learned more about himself in the process. Both the team and the goaltender are better for it.

"I just have always been my biggest critic that way," Holtby said. "I've always just wanted to do well, win games and if you're not winning and doing well, sometimes it creeps in where you're searching for answers and maybe they're not there. Maybe it's just the way hockey goes sometimes, and maybe there's just some little adjustments there. It's been the case both ways the last couple years. Pressure has never really been about anything else other than myself just wanting to get better."

Kempny to miss rest of season: Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny will miss the remainder of this season, including the playoffs, after having surgery for a torn left hamstring, the team announced. The expected recovery time is four to six months.


The news is a blow to the Capitals' blue line with the postseason just a week away. Washington acquired Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks before the trade deadline last season, and his strong skating made him a good fit beside top defenseman John Carlson . His addition helped the Capitals' surge into the playoffs, en route to a Stanley Cup, and he had been enjoying a career season before getting hurt against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 20. Kempny averaged more than 19 minutes per game and scored six goals with 19 assists.

He tore his hamstring during a tussle with Tampa Bay's Cedric Paquette in the second period. Kempny landed awkwardly on his left leg while Paquette wrestled him down to the ice, and the Capitals took issue with how Paquette continued to punch Kempny while he was down on the ice.

With Kempny out for the past six games, Washington has played second-year defenseman Christian Djoos in Kempny's place beside Carlson. Coach Todd Reirden has also experimented with playing Carlson on the left, his off side, while having Nick Jensen on the right. Jensen was acquired before the trade deadline this season, and that deal looms especially large now.

Jensen had been averaging more than 20 minutes per game with the Detroit Red Wings this season, and with the Capitals, he's played 16:39 per game through 18 contests.


Editor's note: These stories originally appeared at