Braden Holtby making most of playoff opportunity with mentally mature approach

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

WASHINGTON – He could have lost his cool, and the old Braden Holtby might have. He was pitching a shutout Wednesday night when he tried to push across the crease to make another save. He ran into an opponent while the puck ricocheted off a teammate and into the net.

It doesn't matter if you think it should have been goaltender interference. It matters that he thought it should have been – and that there were 50.5 seconds left in the third period, and that the Washington Capitals were facing elimination in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and that their lead was down to one, and that they had blown a one-goal lead in the final seconds and lost early in overtime the game before.

Holtby took a breath. Then he took another. Then the Capitals held on to win, 2-1.

"I had to control myself from yelling and trying to plead my case," Holtby said. "That was the hardest part."

But that is why Holtby is here right now, headed for a Game 7 against the New York Rangers on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, one victory away from the Eastern Conference final.

He is quick-tempered by nature. He is only 22 years old. He is a third-stringer with little NHL experience. He was thrust into a starting role because of injuries to the top two guys. And he has been playing knowing he was about to become a father, something that could frazzle the nerves of just about any man.

Yet through it all he has seemed steady, centered, serene. Zen. Defenseman Mike Green marveled that he has been "so composed at such a young age" and called him "very mature beyond his years." Winger Mike Knuble called him "just real normal" and "very ungoalie-like."

In the first round, Holtby beat the Boston Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions, and Tim Thomas, the reigning winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player.

In the second round, he has a chance to beat the Rangers, the No. 1 seed in the East, and Henrik Lundqvist, a Vezina finalist known as "King."

He has a 1.95 goals-against average and .935 save percentage as the backbone of the more conservative, defensive Capitals, and now he and his fiancee, Brandi Bodnar, have a son, Benjamin Hunter Holtby. After the baby was born Thursday, he texted a friend and said: "I'm doing awesome."

That, he is. He is seizing this opportunity and performing like a seasoned veteran, because he has learned to manage himself mentally, making the most of his natural talent, drive and discipline.

"He's put it all into perspective," said his friend, John Stevenson, a goalie coach and sports psychologist. "I told him, 'Now all we need is the Cup to put the baby in.' He just laughed."

* * * * *

Holtby was born for this. His is the all-Canadian story. He grew up on a family farm in Saskatchewan, playing in the basement and on a backyard rink. His grandparents gave him a plaque with a quote by Victor Hugo: "There is nothing like a dream to create the future." He wanted to be like his dad, Greg, who had played goal for the Western Hockey League's Saskatoon Blades. He wanted it badly.

Maybe too badly. He ended up playing for the Blades, but they were rebuilding when he arrived in Saskatoon. He saw a lot of rubber, and he took every puck personally. He broke sticks. He chopped opponents and even teammates at times.

"I can remember when guys would shoot pucks in the net in practice when he wasn't looking, and he'd get upset," said Blades coach Lorne Molleken. "There were times where Braden would lose his composure or be a little bit hot-headed. I think that John worked extremely hard on that part with him and did a great job, and Braden deserves a lot of credit because he's always been very coachable."

Holtby was 16 when Stevenson started working with him. At first, they concentrated on technique – reading, anticipating, positioning. As time went on, they concentrated on concentration.

"He would really get upset, and the funny thing is, that's what's got him to where he is, but it's also held him back," Stevenson said. "He was very much a perfectionist. In practice, he would battle for every puck, but he had to learn how to let go, because if he had one goal get by him – particularly if it was what he thought was a soft one – then he would just crumble. He would get really angry, and then he couldn't think clearly, and then his decision-making and everything else would just kind of fall by the wayside."

Holtby already was excellent at visualization. Stevenson taught him what to visualize and when. That's why you see Holtby leaning against an upside-down goalie stick before games – hands on the blade, head down, eyes closed – deep in thought. That’s why you see him pantomiming in the hallway. That's why you see him moving from station to station in his crease before each period, making imaginary saves, seeing what he has to do mentally, feeling what he has to do physically.

If people think it's strange – or goalie-like – so be it. "I joke with my goalies," Stevenson said. "Because we've got this reputation of being weird, we can do whatever the hell we want."

Stevenson taught Holtby how to manage his energy. He told him to "know your numbers." If zero is asleep and 10 is jacked to the max, Holtby would rev up to a 12 one night, slide to a seven the next, then slump to a three. He had to find a number at which he could stay consistently, and he had to learn how to get there – to pump himself up when too low, to calm himself down when too high.

Holtby had to learn how to breathe. Stevenson introduced "heart-rate variability training," which is used by some Olympic athletes and hockey teams, like the Vancouver Canucks. The idea is to sync your breathing to your heart rate. Practice it enough, and all it takes is a couple of breaths to get into the zone.

"What it does is, it regenerates you, and it gives you a balance," Stevenson said. "It gets your brain functioning better. What I explained to Braden, when you start to get angry or upset, basically your brain shuts off. The other thing that happens is, you get tunnel vision."

Holtby has read and re-read self-help books like "Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence," by Gary Mack, and "The Greatness Guide: Powerful Secrets for Getting to World Class," by Robin Sharma. Sometimes he sprays liquid out of his water bottle and focuses on the droplets flying through the air, resetting his eyes and mind.

It has been a process. After two losing seasons in Saskatoon, Holtby went 40-16-4 in his final junior season. He went 32-10-5 in the minors last season – and also 10-2-2 with a 1.79 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in stints with the Capitals. Along the way, there were times when … well, he was still searching for his number.

"He used to do some things where I could hear him in the dressing room," said Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner, who played part of the 2008-09 season with the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears. "He could be all the way down at the end of the hall, and I could still hear him."

Hear what?

"Stuff," Alzner said, smiling. "He's settled it down quite a bit. I don't want to embarrass him. I don’t want him to start thinking about it."

When the Capitals traded Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche last summer, Holtby thought he might make the NHL. Then veteran Tomas Vokoun signed a sweetheart one-year, $1.5 million deal as a free agent, hoping to win his first Cup in Washington. Holtby spent most of this season in the minors. He came up once in February and twice in March. The last time, the regular season was almost over. With Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth injured, the Caps knew they needed him for the playoffs.

"I think everybody's kind of watching with one eye to see how he handles things," Knuble said. "But you get through one, two, three games, and you see this guy's still working as hard as he ever did in practice. I think coming in we all knew he had a real solid head on his shoulders.

"He takes his game seriously, and he wants to get to the next level, and he's been patient. At times it's probably hard for him to stay as patient as he has been throughout the past couple years, but he knows his time will come, and he's definitely earning it."

The Capitals' defensive approach is working only because of reliable goaltending. Holtby has been humble and approachable. He hasn't shown up anyone with bad body language after a goal, and he has acknowledged blocked shots with thank-yous. The guy who had to learn to let go is 6-0 after losses in these playoffs, including 4-0 after overtime losses, and hasn’t lost back-to-back games in 29 NHL starts.

"I've loved that kid since last season when he got called up," said Capitals center Matt Hendricks. "He's very steady. I'm sure he's played these moments in his head his whole career, his whole life, even as a little kid. He's very happy to get the opportunity, and he's doing an outstanding job."

* * * * *

How will Holtby handle this Game 7 in New York? How will this 22-year-old farm boy from the Canadian prairies, this former hot-head, handle the biggest game of his life in North America’s biggest city, in the World’s Most Famous Arena?

Look at how he handled Game 7 in Boston. The morning of the game, he made some comments that, in retrospect, seem to echo Stevenson.

At one point, he said: "You want to have the same energy throughout your body throughout the whole game." At another, he said: "There's a lot of ups and downs. To try and keep them all level is the hard part."

In the second period, with the game tied 1-1, a teammate pushed Bruins center Rich Peverley into Holtby, who pushed Peverley back out of the crease. Peverley whirled around and swung his stick as if it were an ax and Holtby were a tree, stopping just short of cutting him down. Holtby just stood there, arms crossed, stoic. He made 31 saves in a 2-1 overtime victory.

That Victor Hugo quote was nice: "There is nothing like a dream to create the future." But for Holtby, a dream was just the beginning. He has worked hard and learned to live in the present, and that's why Stevenson is confident he will have a bright future whether he wins or loses this one. He will not be another hot goalie, another flash in the pan, another Jim Carey – the guy who won the Vezina for the Capitals in 1996 and soon disappeared from the league.

"No matter what happens, the kid's going to be in the NHL for a long period of time, just because he gets it," Stevenson said. "Other guys, they won't listen. He takes criticism very well, and he wants to get better, and he's got that work ethic that will take him to that next level."

One breath at a time.

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