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Braden Holtby’s Bounceback Playoffs

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A month ago he’d lost his job. Now he’s the backbone of the Caps deepest playoff run in 20 years.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Since Olaf Kolzig minded the net in the 1998 Stanley Cup final, the ice between the pipes in the Nation’s Capital has seen a varied cast of characters, from Craig Billington to Brent Johnson to Tomas Vokoun, with tons of names peppered in between. But it was Braden Holtby who guarded the goalposts when Evgeny Kuznetsov buried a breakaway chance to put away the Penguins and advance the Caps into the third round of the NHL playoffs for the first time in two decades.

And while it’d be easy to pin some of the more recent Spring disappointments on Holtby’s lapel, he’s elevated his standard of play this time around, and could very well be the Caps’ MVP through twelve playoff games (only ten of which Holtby started).

First, let’s revisit how Holtby’s regular season was an aberration, given the body of work that preceded it.

A tip on reading this: the red dot is Holtby’s datapoint. The vertical lines are the range of the distribution for that season, and the faded blue datapoints are other goalie performances.

In his career, Holtby has generally indexed towards the top of the League. He’s been consistently good, if not elite in recent years. This year, that was very much not the case. But a goaltender’s save percentage is subject to at least some influence by the quality of play from the guys in front of him. Poor play yields higher quality chances against, which will of course yield more goals. So it goes. The metric Expected Sv% can help elucidate additional insight, as it forecasts the save percentage a goaltender might be expected to have based on the types of shots he sees.

In the below plot, Holtby’s expected save percentage has been added as a blue point.

This reinforces conventional wisdom about Holtby. Over his career he’s given his teams a boost, in no greater evidence than it was last season. But this season it looks like the plummet in his performance was due more in part to his own on-ice shortcomings than anyone else’s.

Now that you’re comfortable reading this type of plot, let’s go through the exercise once more, this time looking at Holtby’s playoff performances through the years.

His performances are generally strong when measured by 5v5 save percentage, which should come as no surprise given he’s got the best playoff save percentage among active goaltenders with more than 20 games played.

In fact, you’ll notice that his relationship between actual save percentage and expected save percentage most closely resembles his performance from 2014-2015, when he was lights out but Henrik Lundqvist was his equal on the other side of the ice, and from 2011-2012, when he burst onto the scene with out-of-this-world play to help Dale Hunter show the defending champion Boston Bruins the exit, and then take the New York Rangers to a Game Seven. While the raw numbers might not equal the insanity of that performance, the lift he’s currently giving to the guys in front of him is similar.

But these numbers are 5v5, and while that’s commonly used as the strongest indicator of a goaltender’s performance, in the playoffs Special Teams play is especially critical, and you know how the old adage about goaltenders and penalty killing goes. So how has the Holtbeast shown up once the squad goes down a man?

Extremely well. This plot shows that Holtby consistently performs at a .90% save percentage or better on the PK during the playoffs, which is considerably above what the expected number projects. Your PKers say thanks, Holts.

But it wasn’t goaltending on the penalty kill that was Holtby’s downfall in the 2016-2017 postseason, so let’s take the view back to 5v5 and segment his performance by danger rated shots.

Focus on the last two points on each line specifically, which represent last year and this respectively. Last year Holtby saw an unfortunate playoff plummet on low danger softies (read: he started giving up softies when the team could least afford it), also his performance also slipped on high danger stops — the kind of saves you’d like to see your defending Vezina winner steal a few more of. This Spring the low-danger save percentage has rebounded a bit. There’s still room for improvement on that front, but Holtby is making up for it on the high-danger stuff, where he’s saving chances at a better click than he has at any point in his career, regular season or playoffs.

To close, let’s illustrate a less scientific difference between this year’s playoffs and last year’s. A common qualitative criticism of Holtby in years past has sounded something like this: “He just hasn’t been able to come up with a big stop when the team needs one.”

This year, there was this: