As luck would have it, the Rangers drew the Caps in the second round and they were the only team in the Eastern Conference that didn’t get a goalie scouting report prior to the start of the second season. Luckier still, at the time I was previewing the potential goaltending matchups the Rangers might run into, Braden Holtby was the third option in goal for the Caps, and not even on most fans’ radar. All that changed with a rock solid performance in knocking off the defending champion Boston Bruins, and now Holtby is very much on the radar. Same structure as always applies, general style, strengths, weaknesses and how the Rangers should approach the matchup. Let’s get to it…
This is probably the subject of a whole different post, but modern goaltending, despite a few stylistic outliers can now be classified into two camps. There are very few NHL tenders who aren’t gifted athletes at this point, one camp using that athleticism to maximize the results of an efficient style in the net, the others allow their athleticism to override their technical soundness. For example, goalies like Pekka Rinne, Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price are all tremendously athletic goaltenders, but they use that athletic ability inside a disciplined system which helps keep them from over-moving and other traps of the overzealous keeper. Guys like Antti Neimi, Sergei Bobrovsky and Jonas Gustavsson fall into the other camp. They are incredible athletes, but that tends to get in the way of them stopping the puck. Until they learn that sliding in a butterfly covers more surface area than a split save, they will continue to come up short on their potential.
The whole point of that explanation is Braden Holtby. He walks that fine line. While not nearly as disciplined as the elite tenders mentioned above, he displays remarkable control and efficiency in the net for someone with his relative inexperience and youth. You can tell by watching him play that he maintains an energy level that those of us over the age of 25 are quite envious of, but doesn’t allow himself to devolve into the second group of goalies.
This is a really long winded way of saying that Holtby plays a fundamentally sound style, while flashing at times ridiculous athleticism.
As anyone who watched the last series between the Caps and Bruins knows that one of Holtby’s biggest strengths is his poise. He maintains a calm demeanor and is seemingly unaffected by the stage is he playing on. He is a strong skater and lateral mover, which helps with the relatively weak Washington blue line.
Analysts tend to think because he was third on the Washington depth chart, that he is just riding a hot streak or playing over his head. From an evaluation standpoint though, this kid is the real deal. I find pedigree on goaltenders fairly meaningless (Hank is a 7th round draft pick) because, forgive me, but the scouting community kind of sucks at evaluating them. Holtby was a 4th round pick, but he has future number 1 written all over him.
Youth and inexperience are really Holtby’s biggest weaknesses. He is still prone to the rookie mistake or not really gauging the incoming play correctly. He is a competent but not particularly strong puck handler, which isn’t a huge deal, but with the Rangers dump and chase style, it could potentially be exploited.
One other problem Holtby has had since joining the Caps has been rebound control. This is a skill that comes with experience and adjustment to the speed of a new level. Everything happens a little faster in the show and there have been times where Holtby hasn’t handled rebounds cleanly (see Seguin’s goal in Game 7).
How the Rangers should approach the matchup
Holtby has one career game against the Rangers and it came back on April 7th, a contest the Caps won 4-1. It was one of the few stinkers put up this season by The King, and Holtby was very strong, stopping 35 of the 36 shots he faced.
Because of the overall balance of Holtby’s style, it makes sense just to get pucks to the net. With his somewhat shaky rebound control and suspect puck handling, it could be the Rangers best chance for success. Unlike Craig Anderson, it won’t necessarily be a strategical advantage to try and stretch Holtby out east/west, considering how strong he moves laterally. Trying to create traffic in front and fighting for rebound chances are definitely the way to go.
The Rangers are going to have their hands full with the red hot Braden Holtby in this series, but if they can make his life miserable in traffic and make him pay for not controlling the puck, they could force him out of his comfort zone and be able to maximize their goaltending advantage.