Capitals' Braden Holtby Earning Elite Status with Otherworldly 2015 Playoff FormMay 9, 2015
In the NHL, there is simply no substitute for a brilliant playoff run.
The regular season may be 82 games long and provide every player with the chance to show what he’s capable of, but the reputations of the truly great teams and players are forged in the crucible of the postseason.
It’s why the hockey community admires the Los Angeles Kings but turns its collective nose up at the San Jose Sharks; it’s the reason Jonathan Quick is seen as a member of the NHL elite, while Roberto Luongo’s exceptional career doesn’t draw the same level of praise.
It’s why the last few weeks mark the moment when Braden Holtby went from solid, promising young goalie to NHL star.
Holtby has provided the Washington Capitals with a nearly superhuman performance in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. He is the primary reason the Caps squeaked past a solid Islanders team in seven games; he’s also been the most dominant player in the team’s second-round series against the New York Rangers, a series Washington currently leads by a margin of three games to two.
When Quick won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for the Kings in 2012, he did it on the basis of having turned aside 94.6 percent of the shots he faced during that run. Holtby is on pace to exceed that incredible performance; through 11 games he has stopped 95.1 percent of the shots directed on his net.
Quick’s work in L.A. is the gold standard for playoff goaltending in recent years, and Holtby surpassing it is truly remarkable.
It isn’t just Quick whom Holtby stacks up well against, either. Hockey-Reference.com makes it possible to quickly compare player performances, and it shows just how remarkable Holtby’s work has been. Since the NHL started tracking save percentage in the 1980s, no goaltender has ever played in 10 or more games and posted a 0.950 save percentage.
Era effects play a role in that, of course. Patrick Roy’s 0.923 save percentage in 1986 may be even more impressive than Holtby’s, given that it came in the same year that Wayne Gretzky scored 215 points and Edmonton alone had four 100-point scorers.
Even so, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Holtby’s work this spring has already been among the most impressive performances we’ve seen from any goalie over the last 30 years.
There’s another interesting comparison to be made between Quick’s run in 2012 and Holtby’s current campaign. Quick played behind a team that was very strong in its own right and posted a ludicrous 16-4 record. Holtby’s own record is just 6-5; the Capitals are a single game over 0.500 when playing in front of a goalie who is presently giving an in-his-prime Patrick Roy a run for his money.
It goes without saying that Holtby is to some degree playing over his head at the moment, but it’s not like this performance came out of nowhere.
Holtby has played 178 regular-season games and has a career 0.921 save percentage, putting him fifth among active goalies to play at least 100 games since 2010, tied with Pekka Rinne and Roberto Luongo and just a touch back of Carey Price.
He played an NHL-leading 73 games in 2014-15 and saw no drop-off in performance. Despite Washington’s hesitancy in trusting him as a full-time starter in past seasons, he’s been good-to-great for some time now.
He also hasn’t been a slouch in the playoffs. In his postseason debut in 2012, Holtby gave the Caps a 0.935 save percentage goaltending, guiding them to a second-round Game 7 against the Rangers in the process.
The next year Washington again fell in seven games to New York, this time in the first round, but Holtby held the Rangers to one goal or less in four of seven games and finished the playoffs with a 0.922 save percentage.
In other words, there is a pretty sizable body of evidence indicating that, in Holtby, Washington has found a player who can probably be counted on to provide high-level goaltending for the next decade or so. Holtby has passed every test he’s faced and, even before this spectacular playoff run, was one of the top young ‘tenders in the league.
He’s always been an extremely good goalie. The 2015 NHL playoffs is simply the moment when the hockey community fully appreciated that fact.
Statistics courtesy of NHL.com, Hockey-Reference.com and War-on-Ice.com unless otherwise noted.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.