For the first time since May 9, Capitals goalie Braden Holtby will take to the ice at Verizon Center. But he won’t be wearing red, white and blue. He’ll be wearing the chocolate brown uniforms of the Hershey Bears, the organization’s top minor-league affiliate which is playing in the AHL Showcase tonight against the Norfolk Admirals at 7 p.m.
It is a chance for local fans to see some hockey in the District for the first time all season as the NHL lockout continues unabated. For Holtby, who was supposed to fight for playing time with the Caps and is instead back riding the buses in the minors, it was a chance to connect with old friends. He had dinner with teammate John Carlson on Wednesday. For one night at least he’s back in the big leagues.
“It’s great to be back to see the training staff and everyone involved with the team,” Holtby said. “You get pretty close to those guys and it’s good to see them again. It’s definitely different without seeing the familiar faces in the locker room that kind of make this place what it is. It’s good to be back, but it’s definitely a little weird.”
Holtby, so good in the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring against the Rangers and Bruins, is 7-7 with a .917 save percentage and a 2.71 save percentage. The Bears have muddled through the early going with a 9-11-1 record and playing in the minors again hasn’t been an easy adjustment for Holtby. There aren’t many technical changes to make – save when associate goalie coach Olie Kolzig visits or Holtby is going through a rough stretch and needs to make some tweaks. There is the mental challenge of not being in the NHL when you spent all summer preparing for exactly that.
“Not to go back to Hershey. I think it was more that there wouldn’t be any NHL in general,” Holtby said. “I mean as a fan, a player, it’s what you live your live based around. So that’s the hardest part to take. Not being back in Hershey. I’m very thankful to be here to get to play.”
Holtby noted the increased talent in the AHL this season thanks to the ongoing lockout. There are entire lines of players – even on suspect teams – that are NHL-caliber units. But he says the bigger benefit to him is in practice with his teammates, not necessarily in games against those sharp-shooters. The style and pace of the game at that level is still different, after all. For now, like all of his teammates spread across North America and Europe, Holtby waits and hopes for the negotiations between the NHL owners and the NHLPA to reach a conclusion. Then it will be time to start up again.
“It brings back memories, obviously, of last year,” Holtby said. “The last time I was [at Kettler Iceplex on May 14] was obviously a sad day that we were out. But it was a great time at the end of last year. I think we’re all ready to get back and make more of those memories.”
Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14