Olie Kolzig doesn't just see a difference in the Washington Capitals; he can feel it, too.
The veteran netminder has faced a combined 45 shots on goal the past two games. That's a virtual vacation for Kolzig.
In his previous eight starts, he saw an average of almost 38 shots per game. Two teams, in fact, set records during that span. The 28 shots the Florida Panthers fired at Kolzig in the second period on Oct. 20 were the most in franchise history; the 24 second-period shots Carolina hurled at him two nights later tied a Hurricanes road record.
Those forgettable performances capped a stretch of four consecutive games in which the Capitals surrendered at least 40 shots on goal.
But on Oct. 23, a day after the 4-0 loss to Carolina, Washington's coaches implemented a new forechecking system, one players said is more suited to the team's personnel.
"We were giving up between 35 and 50 shots, so something needed to change," Capitals captain Jeff Halpern said after yesterday's practice at Piney Orchard Ice Arena.
On Wednesday, the Capitals debuted the new system, and the results were immediate: They held the Sabres to 17 shots (a season-low for both teams) and won, 3-2. On Friday, the Lightning recorded 28 shots, 12 fewer than Martin St. Louis and company had registered in their first meeting with the Capitals. Although Tampa Bay prevailed, 4-2, the Capitals' continued progress was obvious.
"We changed our system," Kolzig said. "With the old system, it required guys to make reads. And sometimes, they made the wrong read, or no read at all. It allowed teams easy access. Guys would blow by us with speed, then we would take a penalty and it snowballed from there.
"With this one we're not allowing teams easy entry into our zone. We're really limiting odd-man rushes, and the penalty killing has really picked up. That's all contributed to the lower shot count against us. Anywhere between 25 and 30, or 10 shots a period -- for a goalie, that's ideal."
Coach Glen Hanlon said: "There's lots of things we've done the past couple of games that have helped us. We haven't had one of those one-minute shifts where the shot clock has just been going 'boing, boing, boing.' That's huge for us."
Kolzig (3.76 goals against average) has kept the Capitals competitive, even when they haven't deserved to be. It doesn't take a 13-year veteran to know fewer shots almost always equals fewer scoring chances. And it isn't as taxing on the 35-year-old Kolzig's knees.
"With all due respect to everyone else, what's the strength of our hockey team?" Hanlon said. "Our strength is our goalie. So give him a chance. You give Olie a chance for a period or a period and a half, and he's going to bring it home every single time. Just don't have 10 scoring chances in the first half of the game. Keep it manageable, and we'll be fine."
Capitals Notes: Dainius Zubrus, Matt Bradley, Jeff Friesen and Jamie Heward did not skate yesterday, all of them apparently suffering from varying degrees of lower-body ailments. Bradley left Friday's game in the second period and did not return; Zubrus took only two shifts in the third period. Team officials have refused to comment on the extent of the injuries, but none appear serious. The four players were spotted undergoing treatment at Piney Orchard yesterday.