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Don't mess with Braden Holtby when it's time to stop the puck

WASHINGTON -- There is game-day Braden Holtby and there is off-day Braden Holtby, and Washington Capitals rookie forward Michael Latta learned quickly to distinguish between the two.

The 23-year-old Latta, a squirrelly ball of energy under normal circumstances and even harder to contain in the hours before puck drop, was in the stall next to the Capitals goaltender before a game one day, trying to funnel his pregame nerves.

In the midst of trying to get himself geared up, he made the mistake of giving Holtby a playful pop on the pads. Holtby, fastidious in his pregame mental preparation, did not play along.

"I learned to just kind of stay out of the way," Latta told ESPN.com, joking about the dual parts of Holtby’s personality.

This is not to say that Holtby isn't one of the most well-liked, beloved teammates in the Capitals room. He is. Latta compared him to NBA player Kobe Bryant, someone who can compartmentalize and adopt a different persona depending on the situation, and the stakes.

At the rink, Holtby is all business. Any other time, he’s just a 25-year-old farm boy from Saskatchewan, easygoing and affable.

"On days off, he’s the sweetest guy, the nicest guy," Laatta said. "Just a small-town guy. He’d do anything for you."

So regimented is Holtby in his well-documented pregame routine, many people come to assume Holtby (like many goaltenders) is high-strung and, well, maybe a bit eccentric.

But just look at the way he dresses when he comes to the rink every day, teammate Joel Ward points out as proof that he is a "pretty chill guy," at least before he straps on his skates.

"Beach-going California -- meets New York, with a splash of high fashion, with a touch of -- Montana?" Ward said of Holtby’s sartorial sensibilities, before settling on his niche. "Just natural cruiser."

And though his teammates see him often in these easy-breezy environs, few others do at this time of year, because never have the stakes been higher for Holtby and the Capitals.

The team enters Wednesday’s winner-takes-all Game 7 having seen their 3-1 series lead evaporate against a skilled, speedy New York Rangers squad. The group has had to battle the perception as one that fails to live up to expectations, one that cannot go the distance. Even Alex Ovechkin has come to confront the stigma head-on, guaranteeing a victory for the Caps in Game 7 and then standing behind his proclamation Tuesday.

"I just said we’re going to New York and we’re going to finish up the series," Ovechkin said. "So that’s what I mean."

Capitals coach Barry Trotz seems to encourage this bold and brazen nature as a squad that recognizes its demons and embraces the opportunity to change the narrative. His arrival has seemingly evoked a needed culture change. But if there is any true difference-maker in this series so far, it has been Holtby.

Plenty of pundits predicted Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist would give the Rangers the definitive edge in goal, but that hasn’t been the case. Plenty also anticipated that Holtby might wear down after a heavy workload during this regular season -- a career-high 73 starts, 25 straight heading into the postseason. But that hasn’t been true, either.

Instead, Holtby has been resolute between the pipes for the Caps, steadying the team with his signature sense of calm, one that comes across as an almost Zen-like presence on the ice.

It’s that even-keel equanimity that he exudes even the day before one of the biggest, if not the biggest, games of his life, as he essentially shrugs off any questions about the enormousness of the moment.

"It’s just another game," Holtby said after the team’s practice Tuesday. "The game doesn’t change. The circumstances outside of it do. I do what I enjoy doing, and that’s playing hockey. Circumstances aside, I expect the top level in myself of every game I play, so tomorrow’s just another challenge."

Beyond that cool, collected, unaffected demeanor is also a fierce competitor, teammates will assure you.

Defenseman John Carlson said everyone knows not to mess with him when he’s "in the zone." Defenseman Karl Alzner said he doesn’t even bother to shoot rebounds on him in practice anymore. He just gets so angry when he doesn’t stop the puck that it’s not even worth it.

"Super-competitive," defenseman Matt Niskanen said of Holtby. "He works hard at his skills. He prepares very well and when he gets in that game, all he’s focused on is winning the game."

It’s that competitive fire that John Stevenson saw when he was Holtby's junior hockey goaltending coach when Holtby played for the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League. In Holtby, Stevenson found one of the most earnest, open-minded pupils, whether it came down to employing Stevenson’s visualization techniques, dry-land drills, or film work to improve his game.

"This may sound a little strange, but I knew he was going to be a pro," Stevenson told ESPN.com when reached by phone Monday evening. "Just his work ethic, his determination, his ability to be open and accept criticism. Some guys get ruffled by that. He never did."

Stevenson attributes a lot of that to the hard-working ethos of his family, which runs a grain and cattle farm outside of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. Stevenson recalled a time when, remarking about Holtby’s superlative work ethic, Holtby had told his coach that it was an easy choice when he was woken up at dawn by his grandfather for a long day of grueling work.

"You can either shovel cow s--- or stop the puck," Stevenson recounted of the conversation, with Holtby responding. "'Yeah, I’d rather stop the puck.'"

Holtby’s father, Greg, was a former goaltender himself. His mother, Tami, was a country music singer. His older sister, Taryn, is a fellow athlete -- an elite curler -- and a veterinarian. Whenever Holtby was heralded for his dedication or commitment, he was quick to point out the heavy lifting that his family did by comparison.

If his family and humble roots have kept him grounded, the support of Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn has helped to take his game to the next level.

Even after allowing four goals against the Rangers in Game 6, Holtby still enters Wednesday’s match with ridiculous numbers. He boasts a 1.71 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage this spring.

"I think his game has taken a major step this year," one NHL goaltending coach told ESPN.com. "Notice he rarely ends up in the white paint anymore and is always set in the shooting lane and in the blue paint. Hard to beat guys when they are just waiting for the shot."

What Korn has done, Stevenson surmises, is make small technical adjustments -- tightening up or closing holes, helping him play more compact while reading the play -- without changing the essence of Holtby’s game.

Korn, whom Stevenson calls the “best goaltending coach in the league,” encourages Holtby to incorporate all the things he has learned from others -- including Arturs Irbe, Olaf Kolzig and Dave Prior -- and integrate those methods and techniques, rather than tear down and start over.

"Honestly, what you’re seeing right now is the culmination of all these influences," said Stevenson, who now works as a sports psychologist in Edmonton, Alberta.

Every goaltender has different tendencies and mechanisms to help keep himself focused, even if Holtby’s seem quirkier than others. One that has garnered interest is his habit of flicking water out of his water bottle and training his eye on watching the water droplet fall to the ice during stoppages throughout the game.

It’s a distraction from a distraction, Stevenson explained, and it is designed to keep him in the present moment.

And that might not ever be more important for a team than Wednesday night, when Holtby needs to be locked in to help the Capitals stave off a devastating series collapse.

Holtby seems to be the least of anyone’s concern.

"We’re not worried about him," Ward said. "We know he’ll show up."

After all, there isn’t much that has seemed to rattle Holtby, so another Game 7 is unlikely to do that.

On a recent off day, Alzner sat in his stall trying to think of a time he had ever seen Holtby flustered on the ice. He couldn’t think of a single instance.

Asked what it would take to really leave him shaken, Alzner thought about it again, before finally coming up with something:

"Maybe if you smashed his guitar?" Alzner wondered aloud.

When this was relayed to Holtby, he laughed: "Or just bad music."

It was, after all, an off day.