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Is Braden Holtby “Back”?

A look at the Caps goalie’s recent run of play

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

“Obviously, [Holtby] today was unbelievable.”

That’s Alex Ovechkin’s assessment of his netminder following Monday night’s shootout win over visiting Winnipeg.

Braden Holtby was unbelievable. Obviously.

It may not actually be obvious if you just saw his stat line - 30 saves on 33 shots through overtime before stopping three of five shootout attempts is a rather pedestrian outing, numbers-wise. But Holtby was indeed stout in victory, surrendering only a couple of somewhat fluky goals and one on a clean breakaway (something he’s had to face far too often of late) and making numerous - and confident - ten-bell saves.

Holtby was similarly solid against the Penguins on Sunday... with similarly unspectacular statistics to show for his effort, aside from the one that really matters in the win column.

Such is life in the Caps’ cage these days, where the combination of, shall we say, uneven team defensive play has resulted in a team that hasn’t held an opponent to fewer than two goals in a game since before the All-Star break a month ago (and has had only two two-goals-against efforts in the last 13 games).

To be sure, some of that has been on Holtby and his back-up (we’re okay calling him that, after a brief flirtation with a “1A/1B” situation, right?) Ilya Samsonov. But Holtby’s recent run of good play on the heels of some real inconsistency has Caps fans wondering if their Cup- and Vezina-winning netminder is “back.”

The answer, as it turns out, is complicated.

Holtby is certainly playing better (or, probably more accurately, getting better results) than he has since early December. Let’s look at a couple of charts (data via Natural Stat Trick):

What that first chart shows is the difference between the number of goals that Holtby has allowed at five-on-five and the number of goals we’d expect him to allow over rolling five-game spans. Put aside the raw differences (xG persistently undercounts actual goals allowed, so negatives aren’t necessarily “bad”) and focus on the trends - things have been better lately.

That second chart shows save percentage by shot characterization: Scoring Chances, High-, Medium- and Low-Danger chances. Holtby has been better at stopping Low- and Medium-Danger shots (the most common shots he faces... though it often doesn’t feel that way) and a bit up-and-down on the tougher chances.

But it feels like Holtby has been better than this lately, doesn’t it? There are probably two reasons for this: 1) these charts show five-on-five shots only, and he’s been a wall on the penalty kill lately, so that’s not reflected here; and 2) that uptick in Low- and Medium-Danger shots is up, meaning there have been fewer gut-punch softies that tend to stand out. To wit, Holtby has given up two Low-Danger goals at five-on-five in his last eight games and one Medium-Danger goal in his last seven; eleven of the fourteen five-on-five goals he’s allowed over his last seven games have been High-Danger. Holtby is stopping the shots he “should” stop, and a lot of the rest can be blamed (to an extent) on the defense.

We’ve written fairly extensively on Holtby’s ups-and-downs this season, and this from back in October has been borne out over the four months since:

So what should we expect from Braden Holtby going forward? All else equal, it’s likely he’ll still have have some “ups,” but also likely that he’ll continue to become less effective over larger samples. Holtby is no longer an elite goaltender, and the likelihood that he gets back there isn’t great. This isn’t the end or the beginning of the end for him, but, in reality, somewhere in between.

Granted, there’s precedent for those “ups” to come at the right time and for something special to happen (again) - by far Holtby’s worst season was 2017-18, a campaign during which he posted a .907 save percentage and was on the bench to start the playoffs. That spring turned out alright. But the guy who was once posting some of the best postseason numbers the game has ever seen sandwiched that playoff run with save percentages of .909 and .914. Life’s like a box of chocolates, etc.

All of which brings us back to Holtby’s “unacceptable” start to the season. Yes, it’s been bad, and, yes, it’ll almost certainly get better. But with his heir apparent waiting (or not waiting) in the wings, and despite the team rightly backing the goalie who ended 40-plus years of frustration for this franchise, we all need to accept the likely reality going forward. Aging, as it turns out, is not only acceptable, but expected.

It’s a little too soon to say that we’re in one of those “ups” right now, but Holtby’s recent play is encouraging. Besides, the way this team has played defensively, you might have to look pretty close to notice when Holtby is, in fact, playing really well. Obviously.