Photo: Mitchell Layton

For the second season in a row, small sample size notwithstanding, 22-year old Braden Holtby has been the Washington Capitals’ best goaltender. For the second win-or-die game in a row, coach Dale Hunter is giving the nod to Holtby tonight against Buffalo.

In his NHL career, Holtby has played in 18 games, and in all of them has displayed a confidence and swagger in front of the net that shows a visible boost in the 18 men in front of him. Even the four games he’s been lit up in the past two years, the young goaltender hasn’t been fazed.

Hunter might be the paragon of the Capitals organization, but the rough road the first-year coach has seen has exposed the fact that the team’s current makeup might not match Hunter’s coaching preferences. With three good goalies to choose from, Hunter is calling on number 70 in crunch time. Holtby, the Canadian who plays like a defenseman who happens to wear a mask and glove, might be Hunter’s best match in net and the Capitals best chance at the playoffs.Michael Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun have both proven themselves in the NHL in a way that Braden Holtby simply hasn’t had time to. Vokoun is the elder statesman, a perennial NHL starter and the reason the Capitals held it together at season’s start (winning six straight) the turn of the new year (winning four in a row).

Neuvirth is only a year senior to Holtby, but by contrast has seen six times the action that Holtby has. The most reliable contributor in net on last year’s squad, Neuvirth has often borne the brunt of some of the Capital displays in front of him, piling up the goals against that ultimately got Bruce Boudreau fired in November.

With three good goalies to pick from, it would seem that all Hunter has to do is play the hot hand until it isn’t hot anymore. Sometimes, hockey is simple in that fashion. Goaltending is as temporal as any occupation in sports. One minute you are the unassailable starter, the next you are bouncing from team-to-team because you are simply replaceable. Just ask Vokoun, who went from being the cornerstone of the Florida Panthers to a bargain free agent signing over the course of a summer.

Making a long-term commitment to a goaltender can also be hazardous territory, as the Islanders found with with Rick DiPietro. However, Holtby has done nothing but enforce his case as someone who belongs on the Caps roster permanently rather than needing an EZ-Pass to get back and forth from Hershey.

Getting back to that swagger; the way he clears defenders out of the blue paint, his aggressive poke check, Holtby does inspire a different Capitals team to show up when he is in net. Perhaps the Capitals think they need to dig deeper to protect an inexperienced goaltender, but there is something different about the tone Holtby sets when he gets the nod. It’s a bit unfair to judge goalies by how the team plays in front of them, but a goaltender isn’t necessarily as isolated from his team’s performance as say a pitcher in baseball.

In baseball, we have stats like fielding-independent pitching and run support to gauge how strong a pitcher is on his own merits. But a hockey goalie is somewhat of a beacon for the rest of the team. To say that Holtby isn’t the best option for the Capitals in net could be true in a vacuum, but in context giving the nod to the young netminder makes complete sense.

It may stand to reason that the Capitals’ problem entering the playoffs the last two seasons has been linked to the misleading banner of the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. While that won’t be a problem for the eighth-place Capitals this season, gone will be any expectation or entitlement for advancement.

What is needed, and what Holtby provides, is that if the Caps make the playoffs, they must wipe the slate clean and go into each game knowing that they are capable of winning, but never expecting any easy ice. Holtby will get his nearest taste of NHL playoff atmosphere tonight against the ninth-place Sabres, and the unteachable mental makeup he possesses will make him a candidate to start a playoff game no matter how he does this evening.

One of the few “good problems” the 2011-12 Capitals have is three playoff-caliber goalies available to play. While Neuvirth and Vokoun are both strong, proven options when healthy, what’s needed in Washington is a different approach than what has failed in seasons past.

Whether it’s his natural ability, his attitude, or how his team plays when he’s on the ice, right now Braden Holtby is the wildcard that could not only push the Caps into the playoffs, but past the first round.


Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report and b’s video game blog “Game Cache.” Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore.