By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006
Washington Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon has a standard response when someone asks about Olie Kolzig: "We feel he's the best goaltender in the NHL."
This season, Hanlon isn't the only person saying it.
"You look at where Washington is at, outshot most nights, outshot badly a lot of nights, and they are within striking distance of a playoff spot," ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose said in a telephone interview yesterday. "It's phenomenal what Kolzig has done. I'll take what he's done this year over anybody."
Kolzig has faced more shots and made more saves than any other goaltender. His standout play is a primary reason the young and inexperienced Capitals have won four consecutive games and are only one standings point out of a playoff spot entering tonight's game against the NHL-leading Anaheim Ducks.
"I feel as good about my game as I ever have," Kolzig said after yesterday's practice.
Through Wednesday's schedule, Kolzig had faced 701 shots in 20 games -- a whopping 35 per contest -- but had stopped 643 of them. His .917 save percentage, which ranks 10th, is nine percentage points higher than his career average.
· He's 8-0-1 when facing more than 35 shots.
· He's 4-0-1 when making 40 or more saves.
· He has made an average of 37 saves in his 10 victories.
Kolzig has a sensible explanation for the counterintuitive notion of why he plays better as his workload increases.
"I'd much rather have 30-plus shots per game than 20 shots," he said. "I like being involved. You get into a flow."
His longtime position coach, Dave Prior, agrees.
"One benefit of it is that it's easy to stay in a game," Prior said. "That's the advantage of getting regular work throughout a period or throughout a game, especially when things are going bad and you have idle time to think about things. That's when you start worrying about whether you are going to make the next save."
That certainly wasn't a problem Nov. 28 at St. Pete Times Forum, where the Capitals arrived reeling from a six-game losing streak that showed no sign of ending, not with Dallas, Buffalo, Ottawa and Anaheim up next.
The Lightning peppered Kolzig with 50 shots, 24 of which came on power plays, but the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder stopped 48 of them to lift the Capitals to a 5-2 win.
"Fifty is a little extreme," Kolzig cracked.
The unlikely victory ignited the Capitals, who, in the eight days since, have knocked off the Stars, Sabres and Senators, each of whom had 100 or more points last season.
During the streak, Washington's offense has come through with 22 goals. But, as usual, Kolzig has been the key. The career Capital is 4-0-0 with a 2.75 goals against average and a .929 save percentage.
"If you're not watching Olie every night, and you are just looking at statistics, and you see someone with a real micro goals against average and a lot of wins, it's not easy to respect what Olie has done," said Hanlon, a former NHL goaltender. "Every time he plays, we feel we're going to get strong NHL goaltending."
His players agree.
"He's the best in the NHL, for sure," said Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals' leading scorer. "He's 90 percent of our team. We feel like we have great goalie."
Chris Clark, the club's captain, said: "Sometimes you just feel like saying sorry to him after he's all over the ice making a save. I don't say anything because he's so focused. But in my head, I'm thinking, 'Jeez . . .' "
Interestingly, Kolzig's surge has come at an age -- he turns 37 in April -- when many professional athletes' skills begin to decline. He attributes the upturn to mental maturity.
"As you get older, you deal with things better," Kolzig said. "You don't get too nervous, you don't get too uptight, you don't get too down. You rebound quicker from bad goals and bad nights."
That's not to say that Kolzig, long renowned for his fiery temperament, isn't susceptible to the occasional stick-smashing episode. The hardwood shelf above his locker has a three-inch dent in it from where he slammed down his mask after a recent loss.
But he is, by all accounts, mellower than in previous years. And that, he said, has helped him maintain his focus, which he can't afford to lose for even a moment.
Kolzig and his coaches say the number of shots the Capitals have yielded can be misleading. They contend that the team's defensive play has improved, that the opponents' number of odd-man rushes and breakaways are down from last season, and that many of the shots come from the perimeter.
They also acknowledge the ideal number of shots would be about 30 per game.
"You don't want to give up that many shots because anything can happen, the goalie can give up a rebound," Kolzig said. "Our goal is keep the shots to about 10 every period."
Until then, it's all on Kolzig, who is glad to oblige.
Washington "is not like Anaheim, where they've got Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger out there," Melrose said. "Kolzig's got young defensemen in front of him, and young forwards in front of them. They are going to make a lot of mistakes. You look at the number of shots he sees, the types of shots he sees, and his record: Kolzig is probably playing the best he's ever played."