Learning to Deal With the Little Things Has Capitals’ Braden Holtby on the Verge of a Stanley Cup

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Squeezed amid the detritus of his double-wide dressing room stall—six empty water bottles, three drained Gatorade bottles and a pile of sweat-soaked towels—Braden Holtby starts to talk. It is the very first step in his postgame analysis, conducted immediately following every final horn, even before the 28-year-old goalie can unbuckle his leg pads and untie his skates. At this moment he is dissecting the events of Monday night’s 6-2 romp over the Vegas Golden Knights, which moved Washington within one win from clinching its first-ever Stanley Cup. The way his mind works, however, it might as well be an exhibition in late-September.

Like a certain NBA team housed several hundred miles north of Capital One Arena, Holtby is all about the process. Many of his pregame rituals are known well, between the visualization exercises conducted alone on the bench to a warmup routine so focused that he describes the experience as “in la-la land. I don’t really know what’s going on.” But the script does not stop when the initial puck drops. In fact, what happens afterwards might even serve greater purpose.

That process starts when positional coach Scott Murray arrives from the press box, where he spends every game jotting notes and charting shots. As reporters trickle into the dressing room for interviews, Murray sits to Holtby’s left and performs something of an emotional debrief: how certain saves unfolded, what happened on goals allowed, anything else that may pop into his mind, all whispered so no one else hears. 

“He wants to know how you feel, so he can get a judge on where I thought my game was at,” Holtby says. “During the game you keep everything in and try to block it out, so at the end you want to air it out in the open and get it off your chest.”

These days Holtby is known as a cold, calculated netminder whose cerebral demeanor barely wavers between victory and defeat. He used to be far more fiery during his teenage years, breaking sticks and losing concentration at the slightest sign of adversity. Then he was introduced to a private coach named John Stevenson, who taught Holtby various methods for staying calm—belly breathing techniques, positive self-talk, the way Holtby will squirt his water bottle during play stoppages and follow one droplet as it plummets toward the ice. No job in professional sports demands greater attention for longer stretches than an NHL goalie. As a result, no position is arguably more exposed to the dangers of psychological fragility.

“Starting pitchers are similar,” Holtby says. “It’s the same mental struggle, but you’re only playing every fifth day. And you’re still creating [by throwing]. You’re not reacting [to shots].”

Besides, baseball pitchers can escape into the clubhouse every half-inning and quickly study some video clips before returning to the mound. Goalies like Holtby, on the other hand, can’t afford to clutter their mind between periods; Murray comes to the dressing room during intermission, but avoids such analysis until later. “If you get too hyped up, if you’re worried or if your mind’s screwed up, you’re all over the place,” Capitals backup Philipp Grubauer says. “You can’t still think about that goal from before. You’ve got to focus on the next shift, stop the next puck. You’ve got to have a clear mind and think about that stuff after the game.”

Which brings us to the next step in the process.

Once their initial dressing room chat is finished, Murray leaves to review footage that video coach Brett Leonhardt compiles on the fly during games. Every save, every scoring chance, every puck-handle is catalogued in a software program called Hudl and tagged with a macro for easy recall. If the Capitals are traveling, Murray will sidle beside Holtby at the start of the team flight and work through the replays on a Macbook laptop. What did you see here? What did you think there? How did this puck get in? How did that miscue happen? If they are in D.C., then Holtby will log into Hudl and watch by himself once he returns home. Typically this takes around 20 minutes, depending on how much action he received during the game.

“Ideally we’d rather sit down and have a conversation and actually talk about it,” Grubauer says. “It’s not what we feel, but what we see. That’s always more important to Scotty.”

It is the same procedure that former goalie coach Mitch Korn, now the organization’s director of goaltending, implemented upon arriving prior to the 2014-15 season. As Korn explained to Holtby then, the ultimate aim is for him to fall asleep without any lingering questions, for the sun to rise with every save and shot flushed away.

“You don’t want to sit in bed, trying to rethink a play where you don’t really know what happened, why you did this or that,” Holtby says. “Whereas if you watch you can figure out if you misread a puck and it went off a stick, or if a guy fanned and it went off the heel of his stick instead of the toe, or if you’re naturally sinking back while fighting through traffic, or if you’re keeping your head up on pucks down low and it’s causing more movement in your arms … little things like that.”

Attention to the little things helped transform Holtby into one of the NHL’s sturdiest netminders under Korn, the ‘15-16 Vezina Trophy winner whose .929 career playoff save percentage ranks second all-time among anyone with at least 30 starts. And it helped him and Murray work through Holtby’s toughest stretch of the past four seasons, when a late-spring swoon vaulted Grubauer into the No. 1 role for Washington’s opening-round series vs. Columbus and relegated him to wearing a baseball cap on the bench.

Since returning to the crease partway through Game 2 against the Blue Jackets, though, Holtby has been his usual self, blanking Tampa Bay in Games 6-7 to clinch Washington’s first Eastern Conference title since ‘97-98, stymying the Golden Knights’ high-flying offense with 86 saves on 91 shots over the past nine periods. 

“He’s a very intelligent goaltender in terms of not overthinking things,” coach Barry Trotz says. “I think he’s able to park things quite well … he’s able to dissect what really is important, and what’s not, and how he can fix it. … And if he runs into some roadblocks or some dry patches, you don’t overanalyze it and get back to your foundations and just make certain adjustments if you need.”

Unless, of course, the Capitals win one more game. In that case the process can wait.

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