When the Washington Capitals opened training camp, the one position that seemed secure was goaltender. Olie Kolzig, the 2000 Vezina Trophy winner, would anchor the spot, with highly touted prospect Maxime Ouellet serving as backup.
Kolzig upheld his end, but Ouellet, for reasons that haven’t been determined, fell apart. There was no quick fix other than finding a replacement.
That replacement turned out to be a player who was going through a similar career crisis. Brent Johnson, a star with St. Louis in the early part of the decade, was put on waivers by Vancouver at the end of camp this fall, and the Caps quickly claimed him.
But Johnson’s first win with his new team didn’t come until Tuesday night when he backstopped a 4-3 shootout victory over Tampa Bay, turning aside 35 shots, including all three in the shootout.
Johnson is not one to get excited easily. He speaks in a tone that doesn’t change much, win or lose. He has seen all this before; his father, Bob, was a goalie with two NHL teams, and one of his grandfathers, Sid Abel, is in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player, coach and general manager.
It is a tough situation to come into, joining a team after the roster has been selected, then trying to gain the confidence of both the organization and your teammates while trying to regain your own. Johnson had thought about playing in Europe but felt he was good enough to stay in the NHL.
“The way the guys treat you helps a lot,” Johnson said. “Olie has helped immensely. [Goalie coach] Dave Prior and I talked for 45 minutes on expectations. I knew Olie was going to play a lot, so my role was to play the best I can when I get the chance.”
The chances have been few, and some did not turn out well. On Nov. 3, for instance, he was shelled 8-1 by Philadelphia, but he was not as bad as that sounds.
“He’s been through a lot the last couple years, and I know that game in Philly really ate at him,” said Kolzig, who has been cleared to play after an injury. “He’s played really well since then. I’ve been in his position. I know how hard it is to come in and play once every two or three weeks. But he was really focused [Tuesday] night, made the big saves and gave us a chance. That’s all you can ask.”
Overall, Johnson is 1-3 with a 4.73 goals-against average in six games (four starts). He has a 2.90 GAA in his last two games.
“I’m so happy for him,” said coach Glen Hanlon, a former NHL goalie. “I’m attached personally to that situation because I’ve almost done exactly what he’s had to do. I was thinking back to how good it feels to sit at home, you’ve played a great game, you’ve contributed, you’ve got your first win with a new team, you start to feel comfortable. This is huge for us.”
It also would be huge if Johnson regains the form that allowed him to win 69 games over a three-year period with the Blues. He is only 28, still young in goalie years, and conceivably could be the eventual successor to the 35-year-old Kolzig.
Notes — Center Dainius Zubrus (groin) will not make the trip to Buffalo and Montreal. Kolzig (hamstring) might play tonight against the Sabres. Defensemen Brendan Witt and Jamie Heward got yesterday off.