The role of backup goaltender in the NHL is often an unheralded one. But it could prove to be vital this season in Washington, where Maxime Ouellet will be asked to do more than sit on the bench for weeks at a time, opening and closing the dasher board door for his teammates.

Ouellet officially became the Capitals' second goalie yesterday when fellow prospect Maxime Daigneault was reassigned to the minor league Hershey (Pa.) Bears.

"He's ready to do it," Washington Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said. "He's had good years for us in [the minor leagues]. [Olaf Kolzig] is going to play the brunt of the games. But Maxime will get enough, just by way of the schedule. I haven't counted back-to-back games, but you can do the math."

The Capitals, to be exact, play on consecutive nights 16 times. Sprinkle in a some stretches of three games in four nights, and Ouellet, 24, could see 20 or more starts while backing up Kolzig. The schedule has been compressed to accommodate a 15-day break for the Olympics.

"I believe he will be able to do the job," Capitals goalies coach Dave Prior said. "But until you do the job in this league, it's not a given. When he was up with us in [2003-04], he performed well for us. And he had some games where he wasn't as good as he needed to be. But that was 16 months ago. He's stronger mentally now."

Ouellet was acquired from Philadelphia in the 2002 deal that sent Adam Oates to the Flyers, and scouts expect him to blossom into an elite goalie. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Quebec native went 15-20-3 with a 2.89 goals against average and .911 save percentage last season with the AHL's Portland Pirates. He missed the final two months with a high ankle sprain.

Ouellet's start Friday against Carolina in the teams' preseason opener was his first game action in eight months. The Capitals lost 6-0.

"It felt pretty good, so it was a step in the right direction," said Ouellet of his ankle. He surrendered four goals on 23 shots in two periods. Three of the scores came on the power play.

Kolzig, 35, said he plans to help Ouellet deal with what could be a tough season for the rebuilding franchise.

"I'm as bad as anybody for getting upset when things aren't going good," said Kolzig, who's entering his 14th season with the Capitals. "I've learned over the years that you can't beat yourself up. Or it can turn into a really long year. This season, there are going to be some growing pains with the team. You have to be patient, play your game and not try to do too much out there."

Ouellet said he's prepared: "That's the goalie's job: to stop the puck, no matter how many shots you face. We have some young defensemen. The goalie has to be ready for whatever comes."

While the Capitals' goalies will face similar challenges on the ice, they couldn't be more different off it. Kolzig jokes with his teammates on game days; Ouellet is introverted. Some say he's the stereotypical "quirky" goalie.

"I try not to be too superstitious," Kolzig said. "Did I eat the same thing? Did I go in the left-hand elevator down and go out the back door, or did I take the right-hand elevator? Maxime's a pretty ritualistic guy."

Ouellet, for the record, says he's not superstitious. He simply has a routine -- that he follows every day, without fail. Apparently, one of those routines is not divulging the specifics to reporters.

"I have a routine on game day," he said. "It's just a way to feel better, just a way to kill time before the game. I do certain drills at the end of the [pregame] practice or eat the same thing, stuff like that. I don't even realize it. I don't notice because it's normal to me."

One thing Ouellet plans to add to his routine is studying Kolzig's technique.

"He has so much experience, he's been here for so long," Ouellet said. "It's a great chance for me to watch him, learn from him and ask questions."

Capitals Notes: C Dainius Zubrus (arthroscopic knee surgery), C Andrew Cassels (broken cheekbone) and D Jakub Cutta (infected muscle tissue near elbow) all skated during practice yesterday. Shaone Morrisonn (strained groin muscle) skated on his own. . . . Jeff Halpern, Kolzig, Alexander Ovechkin and Zubrus will visit the Hurricane Katrina evacuees Thursday at the D.C. Armory.

"He's ready," Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said of Maxime Ouellet, above, being the backup goalie. Ouellet, 24, was acquired from the Flyers in 2002.