NEW YORK About an hour before every game, Braden Holtby will find a spot in the arena and transform it into his personal reflection garden.
At the Verizon Center, it is often behind the Capitals bench. At Madison Square Garden, it is in the front row of seating directly behind the goal he will defend.
Holtby will stand there, leaning on his goalie stick, and begin a lengthy routine of rapid eye movements, hip rotations and quirky body movements. At some point before the game, he will close his eyes and visualize himself in a calm and quiet place.
On a beach chair, facing rolling turquoise waves, toes in the sand gliding across a frozen lake in snow-covered northern Saskatchewan
He will begin deep breathing exercises taking slow and deliberate breaths, six per minute that lower his heart rate.
And while the crowd works itself into a frenzy after the national anthem, Holtby will stand motionless for 12 seconds, then ramp up his emotions. Hell slide on his pads into his goal crease. Hell punch his goal posts with his blocker and wickedly whack the corners of his cage with his goalie stick, a la Ron Hextall.
Alex Semin will knife his stick between Holtbys pads and finally the 22-year-old rookie goaltender be ready for drop of the puck.
Capitals associate goalie coach Olie Kolzig sees Holtbys pre-game routine and smiles.
One thing that maybe well address next year is just the amount of stuff -- Holtbyisms as you guys call them, Kolzig said. Maybe we can cut those down a bit, because eventually its going to wear on him and itll burn him out.
But for right now its working, so dont mess with it. I think the more he plays here, the more comfortable hes going to get and the more confident. Once he starts feeling a lot more like hes part of the NHL, I think some of that stuff will filter or phase out. But right now, whatever hes doing is working, and guys are feeding off of it.
Holtby enters tonights pivotal Game 5 in New York having gone 27 straight NHL games without consecutive defeats. He is 6-5 in the playoffs and ranks sixth in goals-against average (1.94) and sixth in save percentage (.933). He has allowed two or fewer goals in seven of his 12 starts.
But what his teammates like most about Holtby is the accountability he places on himself, win or lose.
He wants to win. He wants to do better, Capitals left wing Jason Chimera said. He puts the blame on himself a lot, which I think is unnecessary a lot of times.
You see a lot of goalies, when they get scored on, they throw their hands up in the air, looking around to see whos to blame. Hes not that kind of guy. Most of the shots he thinks he can save.
Through 12 playoff games, the Capitals have blocked a league-high 244 shots.
He taps guys on the pads when they block a shot, Chimera said. Hes a good kid, and you want to go down and block shots for a guy like that. You see that. Guys are diving in front of shots to help him out.
Holtby, 22, said he learned at a young age that being a good teammate was more important than being a good goaltender.
Its a big thing, he said. I put more blame on myself than anyone, because as a goalie, your job is to make up for your teammates mistakes. You cant be mad if they make them. Sometimes when youre kind of looking to the heavens after a goal, it looks bad. But my view is, Im here to make up for their mistakes and not bring them down because of them.
Holtby has also proved to be unflappable in hostile environments. He went 3-1 in Bostons TD Garden in the first round, including a nail-biting, 2-1 overtime win in Game 7. And he is 2-1 at Madison Square Garden this season, including a season-ending victory that secured the seventh seed for the Capitals.
Its a lot similar to Boston, Holtby said of the atmosphere of Madison Square Garden. Fans are into it. MSG is an exciting place to play. But were not focused on what New York is like. Our focus is trying to get a win. Once youve experienced it once, it doesnt really affect you much. I have one job to do, and thats stop the puck.
Capitals coach Dale Hunter, who turned to Holtby after late-season injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, said that kind of mindset is crucial for a goalies success.
Hes mentally tough, Hunter said. To play goal at this level, you have to be. Hes confident. Hes got a tough job. The buck stops there. If he gives up a breakaway goal, he blames himself even if we make three mistakes before that. Thats what kind of kid he is, and thats why guys want to play in front of him so hard.