The life of a playoff goalie is a complicated mess of nerves, pressure and the unyielding burden that comes with playing a position that is the difference between winning and losing virtually every game. Each time the opposition crosses the blueline, the cycle of angst begins again, but for Washington Capitals goaltender Olaf Kolzig, the first two games of his club's best-of-seven series with Tampa Bay have been far less harrowing than usual.
Kolzig has played as strong as ever and produced several clutch saves, but has spent most of his time in net staked to a lead, a rarity during Washington's recent forays into the postseason. The Capitals never trailed at the Lightning's arena, winning 3-0 and 6-3, and want to continue insulating their goalie during games at MCI Center on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Over 120 minutes of hockey, Washington was tied for 20 minutes 48 seconds and led for the rest. Kolzig was staked to a 2-0 lead within the first eight minutes of Game 2 Saturday afternoon, and the Capitals scored 16 minutes into Game 1, allowing him more of a mental respite than during Washington's last two playoff series, when the team's tepid offense could not provide ample goal support.
"We're going to be scary if we can keep that scoring pace going," said Kolzig, who has outplayed Tampa Bay goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. "Our big guns have scored early in the series now, so they're obviously going to have a lot of confidence and that's going to go a long ways. There is nothing worse than when your scorers are not scoring early in a series. You press the stick a little more and try to force those key plays, whereas now they can relax and just do what they do."
Washington's traditional playoff scoring slump might be a thing of the past. Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra and Robert Lang have each posted a two-goal game. Eight players have produced at least two points through two games and the power play, a potential series-breaking weapon, struck three times in Game 2. Tampa Bay's less-experienced offensive catalysts -- centers Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards -- have combined for one assist and a minus-6 rating, leaving the inexperienced team in a situation that the Capitals are all too familiar with.
During Washington's playoff losses to Pittsburgh, a five-game defeat in 2000 and a six-game loss in 2001, no player scored more than two goals. In 2000, no Capital produced more than three points against the Penguins -- five players have already amassed three points or more against Tampa Bay -- and no one topped five points in 2001; Jagr and Bondra already have four points in this series, and the addition of forwards Jagr, Lang, Michael Nylander, Kip Miller and Mike Grier in recent seasons is paying big dividends.
"I'm not saying anything major yet, but I always believed we've got enough scoring power," said Jagr, who had not scored since March 6 before scoring twice Saturday. "And if we play to our potential we should be able to score a lot of goals."
The Lightning has had difficulty containing Washington's top two lines, with Bondra and Jagr skating on separate units, and Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy will have the option of the last line changes during his upcoming home games, getting a chance to get his top scorers on the ice against some less-defensively sound opposition.
"We talked about those guys before the series started, and they've got a lot of big guns over there," Tampa Bay defenseman Dan Boyle said. "I thought in Game 1 we did a pretty good job on them and [Saturday] some of their bigger guys got on the scoreboard, but we took a lot of penalties, and that was a big key to the game. And when you're down two or three goals, you have to change the way you play, and that's not something we want to do."
Kolzig, however, relishes getting to play with that kind of lead. The Capitals could never find a way to stake him to a multi-goal lead in the two series with Pittsburgh, but have done so in each of these games.
The Capitals came into this series scoring 25 goals in their last 15 playoff games spanning three series, with a 3-12 record in those games. The team went 25 straight playoff games without scoring five or more goals in a game before doing so Saturday. Kolzig has had nine goals of support over two games in this series; the Capitals had scored that many goals over consecutive playoff starts by Kolzig just once before (Kolzig has started 37 postseason games).
Washington's goaltender is already among the best in the world at his craft, rising to that status when he led the club to the finals in 1998, and he is even more daunting when the team plays the way it has thus far.
"Sometimes you can lose a little bit of focus when you have a two- or three-goal lead, but in the first game I was as focused as I've been all year," Kolzig said. "And it was definitely nice to have that lead again [Saturday]. They came out pretty hard and we survived the first few minutes and Jags did what Jags does and [Bondra] scored another great goal. We didn't expect to have a two-goal lead after the first period with them playing that hard, but it was great that we could do that. I'll take that whenever we can get it."