The last time Braden Holtby dressed for a meaningful game for the Hershey Bears at Giant Center, it was back on St. Patrick's Day and the young netminder backed up Dany Sabourin in a 3-2 shootout win over the Albany Devils. Holtby was told that evening to prepare for a quick recall to help out the Capitals during a western road trip.
The next morning, Holtby - expecting an up-and-back trip - drove to Harrisburg International Airport to catch a flight to Chicago to sub for injured netminder Tomas Vokoun. While Holtby's car sat idle collecting fees in short-term parking, its owner established his permanent role with the Caps.
Holtby eventually collected his car, but with his strong play and injuries to Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, he stayed in Washington for the remainder of the season, becoming a playoff sensation as Washington's starter and bringing the team within one win of their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since 1998.
Saturday night, Holtby finally made his return to Giant Center for his first regular-season game since his wild ride in the spring. Making some of the seemingly effortless saves that Washington fans saw on display last spring, Holtby recorded his 11th career AHL shutout in a 3-0 win over Albany.
For a young goaltender who had been looking to earn a spot with Washington during his last two years in Hershey, this season is a role-reversal for the 23-year-old, with a spot in Washington won but no team to go to at the moment.
Holtby said despite having his chance at the Caps' starting role on hold, he still feels lucky he has a spot to play during the dispute.
"I was pretty excited at the end of last year thinking I was going to be in one place for the year," Holtby said, smiling, before turning serious. "It's an unfortunate situation - not for myself - but for the game of hockey.
"I'm lucky, I get to play hockey as a professional with the Bears, so I'm not looking as it as a negative personally, but it is tough to swallow as a fan."
While Holtby is assured of a spot with the NHL club and has replaced the half Hershey-half Washington masks fans had been accustomed to with an all-Capitals mask for the new campaign, right now, he's back in Hershey until the lockout ends.
And against a Devils team featuring some of its own locked-out talent - most notably Adam Henrique, who just helped New Jersey reach the Stanley Cup Finals - Holtby made the tough saves look easy and helped the Bears win just their second game in six tries.
"Yeah, I felt comfortable for most of the game," he said. "I had a couple of lucky bounces in the first, which always helps the momentum. We got those today and it was a win we needed."
Holtby's AHL campaign opened with a loss in the season opener in Syracuse, but he suffered an undisclosed injury and had missed two weeks of action before returning Saturday.
"I was trying to stay back, trying hold my ground as much as I can," he said. "After a long layoff, I think the biggest thing you do wrong is get too ahead of yourself and too aggressive. I was just telling myself to hold back all game, and it worked out."
For now, Holtby is in a good frame of mind to be back with the Bears, especially with the influx of young stars in the AHL this season.
"I think it's more of a challenge, you don't want to let those guys beat you," Holtby said. "Most guys want to get up against the best, and they have some guys who are very good players, but at the same time, I've said it before, I'll say it again this league has been good before the lockout. A couple of players makes a difference on the power play and stuff, but it's pretty much the same hockey as it has been."