by David Elfin

Braden Holtby was back at Kettler Iceplex this morning for the first time since the Caps’ breakup meeting on May 14, two days after their unexpected ride through the playoffs ended with a Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Although there’s optimism about the nearly three-month-old NHL lockout ending soon, Holtby wasn’t wearing Washington red, white and blue. He was clad in the brown and white of the Caps’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, who’ll give fans a little fix of their favorite sport tonight at Verizon Center in a game against the Norfolk Admirals, the Anaheim Ducks’ top farm club.

“It’s great to be back to see the training staff and everyone involved with the team,” Holtby said. “It’s definitely different without seeing the familiar faces in the locker room that kind of make this place what it is.”

There was certainly a dearth of faces to Washington fans. The 23-year-old’s only current teammate who was on the playoff roster is defenseman Dmitry Orlov, but he didn’t see any action as Holtby posted a 1.95 goals-against average as the Caps stunned the defending champion Boston Bruins and pushed the Rangers to the wall.

“It’s good to be back, but it’s a little weird,” Holtby said. “It brings back memories of last year. The last day I was here was a sad day, but [we had] a lot of great times at the end of last year. We’re all ready to get back and make more of those memories.”

Holtby thought the AHL bus rides were just memories, but he has been fine dropping down in class when it comes to lifestyle.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect to be back there this year, but with the situation that [we’re in], it’s probably the best thing that could have happened,” said Holtby, who was in Hershey until the final three weeks of last season when he was recalled to replace the injured Tomas Vokoun. “It’s been good. I’ve still got to work on technical things. The main thing is being able to stay in shape, play in games, keeping my mind sharp. When [the NHL] gets going, it’ll be an advantage.”

Bears right wing Garrett Mitchell is happy that Holtby is back in Hershey.

“We’re fortunate to have him,” said Mitchell, who has yet to make the NHL at 31. “He’s a great goalie and a great teammate.”

Oddly, Holtby has the same 7-7 record in Hershey that he did during the playoffs for Washington and his 2.71 GAA is much higher, but Bears coach Mark French believes he’s a better goalie than he was this time last season.

“He’s been excellent,” French said. “His work ethic hasn’t dropped off. He looks mature and very comfortable in the net. In the past when he wasn’t forced to make a lot of [saves], he would get a little bit adventuresome out of the net. He’s letting the game come to him a little more this season. A young guy needs to continue to play. It certainly keeps his development going. It’s a challenge for him [to be back in the minors], but he’s a very good professional. He’s a very grounded individual off the ice. Before recall, Braden was a popular player in our room and a guy that they looked to for leadership. He brings a lot of energy so I’m sure the other guys feed off of that.”

Holtby isn’t as enthusiastic about his performance, to the point that unlike Michal Neuvirth, who proclaimed this fall that he’s the Caps’ No. 1 goalie when the NHL resumes, the Lloydminster, Saskatchewan native didn’t claim that status.

“I wouldn’t say I’m exactly overwhelmed with my play right now, but I’m seeing the puck good most nights,” Holtby said. “As far [it being] my job to take, I don’t really look at it that way. I look at it as if I’m asked to play, my job is to give our team a chance to win. If I keep doing that, I’ll keep playing. If not, then someone else should be.”

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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