There is a trend developing around the Washington Capitals and its direction is upward. What has not been determined and nobody much seems to care is whether this trend started with goalie Olie Kolzig or whether he is just a part of it.
No matter, Kolzig and the Caps are continuing their remarkable stride back to the front ranks of the NHL, a dash to the top that has been marked by a different hero nearly every night and no dressing room discord. But there seldom is discord when a team is winning at a 16-3-4 clip.
“It’s just been a collective effort, everybody on the whole team chipping in,” coach Ron Wilson said. “I don’t think you can point to any one individual because it’s not one guy who is scoring a lot of goals. A lot of people give more credit to Olie than others but I don’t think that’s fair to the whole team’s defensive commitment just to say the goalie carried us. Olie had to be a lot sharper two years ago during the second half of the season than he’s had to be during this run.”
Not to get Wilson wrong, he is not selling the 29-year-old short. He is simply stating what has been obvious to those who watch the Caps, that from star center Adam Oates to utility man Mike Eagles, from Kolzig to backup Craig Billington, and maybe especially Billington, every player has been involved in turning the Caps around.
Kolzig was the NHL’s player of the month for January with a record of 11-1-2, a goals-against of 1.68 and a saves percentage of .936. He followed that up with his second trip to the All-Star Game (no other Caps goalie has been asked back) and fashioned a shutout during his 20 minutes of play, a rare feat in the run-and-gun, no defense superstar competition.
This came after a season when he went from the Stanley Cup finals to missing the playoffs. He admits his focus was not what it should have been he thought the success of the season rode on his shoulders alone, there were contract problems to work out and a horrible start from which the team never recovered. Before Christmas, the unthinkable already was being whispered in the dressing room the playoffs were out of the question.
“I wanted a different attitude this year,” Kolzig said. “I didn’t want to be concerned about numbers, just giving the guys a chance to win every night. But at the start our system wasn’t what we wanted it to be. I didn’t get down on myself but I was glad they made changes and because they did, I’m benefiting more than anybody.
“Now people are coming up to me and asking about another slow start and about the turnaround and now that I’m playing OK, they want to know why. A lot of that is the system and as a result, I think this is the most consistent I’ve played as a pro in my career the whole year.”
The system was installed during a horrible 2-6-2 October. It is called the wedge because in effect the center becomes a third defenseman, staying close to the blue line in the offensive zone to prevent odd-man breakouts. The positioning of the center forces puck carriers to one side or the other, where they are picked up by regular defensemen.
“Now you’re not facing 3-on-1s, 2-on-1s, breakaways all night long,” Kolzig said. “The only time there is a breakdown now is if somebody trips or there’s a funny bounce of the puck. With the system in place, you’re expected to make the odd big stop but there’s not going to be a lot of scoring chances throughout the game. The main thing is, don’t let in any soft goals that will demoralize the team.”
It is hard to recall that entering the 1997-98 season, Kolzig had won only 14 NHL games in his career. He now has 98, which is second all-time for the Caps; he has more wins in three straight seasons (84 with 26 games to go) than any other goalie in Washington history; he is 16-2-3 in his last 21 starts and has allowed two goals or less in 17 of his last 21 games.
“He has been very consistent and the confidence he has in his game bleeds over and creates confidence in the rest of the team. And it’s gone both ways our playing better in front of him has allowed his confidence to grow, he doesn’t worry any more that if he makes one mistake we’ll lose the game. Now, if we’re down a goal it doesn’t mean the game is over. His confidence is back where it should be.”
But Wilson has a different slant on Kolzig’s improved play and one of the reasons for it. And the system doesn’t enter the equation.
“I think Olie’s improved ability to focus is a direct result of having Craig Billington here,” the coach said of the backup goalie. “[Billington] is a classic example of a guy who has learned to focus at the right times, and he’s always talking to Olie between periods, before and after games. He has been invaluable in those areas.”