There were times last season when Washington Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig felt like wadding up the sports pages and setting them ablaze. Those were the moments when the criticism leveled in the media seemed a bit too harsh, making the 29-year-old feel like the scapegoat for a battered and under-achieving team.
Such is life for an NHL goalie. When things are going great, like during the Capitals' 1998 run to the Stanley Cup Finals, the goalie gets the bulk of the praise, perhaps too much. And when times are tough, fingers point immediately to the man in net. In every town the Capitals visited, Kolzig felt he was being blamed for the Capitals' collapse.
At times like that a goalie needs consultation, preferably with another goalie who can truly understand. For Kolzig, goaltending coach Dave Prior is the go-to guy. And did he ever get a workout last season.
"There were situations last year when I read the paper and sat down with Dave and sometimes we just laughed," Kolzig said. "Not so much at the lack of knowledge that some media people had, but just at their lack of understanding of the position. They just look at the numbers and don't look at other contributing factors like injuries, lack of goal support.
"It was really good I had Dave here last year because there were times when I just wanted to grab every newspaper and burn them. Everyone looks at last season and thinks I fell off the face of the earth. But realistically, if you go back and look game by game, the difference between last year and the year before is maybe a matter of a half-dozen games. I still feel my season wasn't as bad as the media made it out to be and that everyone thinks I had."
It's not like Kolzig had a banner year. He'll be the first to admit that. But he wasn't awful, either. In 1997-98, his breakthrough season after spending six years primarily in the minors, Kolzig went 33-18-10 with a 2.20 goals against average and .920 save percentage. Last season, when Washington missed the postseason, Kolzig posted a 26-31-3 mark with a 2.58 GAA and .900 save percentage. In essence, he allowed 15 more goals than the season before while playing nearly the same number of minutes.
To their credit, the Capitals limited teams to fewer shots last season. To their detriment, they scored but 200 goals in an 82-game schedule and, riddled by injuries, relied on the goalie to keep them in games. From mid-November to mid-January Kolzig suffered 10 losses; the Capitals failed to produce a goal in seven of those 10 games. In 19 of Kolzig's 31 losses the Capitals were held to a goal or less. It started on opening night (a 1-0 defeat of Anaheim) and never stopped.
"We just didn't score goals for him last year," General Manager George McPhee said. "I remember one eight-game trip to the West Coast when we only scored 11 goals and he only gave up 14. We just weren't doing the job for him and we just didn't have the bodies.
"We have all kinds of confidence in him, and I expect he'll lead us to the playoffs this year and beyond. I have watched him outplay [Buffalo's Dominik] Hasek and all the other goaltenders. I liked him a lot before I got to Washington and when I got here I was sold on him. This guy is an elite goaltender."
McPhee liked Kolzig so much that he signed him to a four-year, $12 million contract extension in November. But initially that provided more angst for the goaltender. He already was heaping intense pressure on himself -- feeling like he had to be perfect every game -- and then it only increased. "The contract stuff was going on and I kept saying to myself, `If I let this goal in it's going to cost me $100,000,' " Kolzig said. "You start playing games with yourself. Then the next thing you know you lose two or three in a row and lose some confidence and all of a sudden it snowballs."
That's when Prior stepped in.
He heard Kolzig repeatedly take more than his fair share of blame last season. Yet Prior felt Kolzig was making fewer technical mistakes and playing more consistently than he had the year before.
"I was somewhat critical of Olie last year for accepting some of the criticism from the media," Prior said. "My feeling was he was probably more consistent last year than in our first year together, and he never, to me, played as bad at any given time as he did at some points in the first year. I'm the goaltending coach and it sounds like I'm sticking up for the guy, but right out of the gate he had to win the first game, 1-0. He didn't get much goal support."
Offense could be a problem again this season. The Capitals have few proven goal-scorers beyond Peter Bondra. Richard Zednik, Yogi Svejkovsky, Jan Bulis and Chris Simon, though talented, have yet to reach their potential and there are no assurances they will do so this season. Kolzig might find himself on an island again. Regardless, he vows to handle things differently, to learn from his mistakes and not be disturbed by any outside influences.
"I'm not going to dwell on the fact some people say I'm a flash in the pan or a one-year wonder," Kolzig said. "I know what I can do and I plan on doing it again this year."