Associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig knows what it’s like to anticipate starting in an NHL game, only to have a coach switch plans late in the day and wind up sitting on the bench. Back on Feb. 7, 2001, Kolzig was the Capitals’ established starter and prepared to face the Colorado Avalanche when then-coach Ron Wilson changed his mind.
“I was scheduled to play right up until game time and all of a sudden he said he had a gut feeling and he decided to start Craig Billington and Biller was facing off against his old mentor in Patrick Roy,” Kolzig recalled. “We ended up winning the game so Wils looked like a genius. But that’s the situation, we’ve all been through it, it’s all about how you respond afterwards.”
Capitals netminder Michal Neuvirth experienced a similar situation on Monday. With Tomas Vokoun still fighting the flu, Neuvirth assumed he would be starting against the San Jose Sharks and prepared accordingly throughout the day. When he arrived at Verizon Center, though, Neuvirth found out Braden Holtby would be making his first NHL start in nearly a year instead.
Kolzig, who works primarily with the organization’s prospects in the ECHL and AHL, was in Washington on Wednesday and worked with both Capitals netminders during practice. He said he planned to sit down with Neuvirth to discuss what happened on Monday, as well as emphasize that how the young goaltender reacts to the sudden change is the most important lesson to take from this experience.
“Just go back on the ice, continue to do your work and when it’s your turn to play, follow it up with a game like you had against the Rangers,” Kolzig said. “All things considered, all of a sudden being last second thrown into the fire [in New York] I thought he did great, gave the guys a chance to win. That’s something he needs to build off of instead of the opposite way, where he gets down about not starting against San Jose.”
Kolzig said he doesn’t mind that Neuvirth was unhappy with the way things went, that he would be more concerned if the 23-year-old was okay with it. But learning to cope with highs and lows is the most important part of developing as a professional goaltender, Kolzig stressed.
This season hasn’t been the perfect sophomore campaign for Neuvirth, who is 6-9-3 with a .894 save percentage and 3.07 goals against average. He’s never been a backup goaltender before, but now his appearances are infrequent at best. In the past 22 games, Neuvirth’s only played in five games — starting just four.
“It’s tough, but what can I do,” Neuvirth said. “I’m still 23 years old. I still believe my best years are still ahead. I’m pretty confident, working hard and waiting for another chance.”
Earlier this season, Neuvirth commented that it’s difficult for him to be in a new role and at times struggling without the presence of goaltending coach Dave Prior. Kolzig said he can relate to a young netminder wanting to have someone around to serve as a liaison to the rest of the coaching staff.
But, Kolzig cautioned, having a goaltending coach present constantly can “almost be counterproductive.”
“Goalies have to go through some adversity on their own, you can’t have the goalie coach being there the whole time as a crutch,” Kolzig said. “You have to develop a sort of mental toughness and figure things out on your own.
“From a technical standpoint, if his game is slipping, as a coach you want to be there to rectify those things because inevitably those things will snowball and he’ll really start being down on himself,” Kolzig continued. “But if the technical part of the game is there, goalies have to themselves develop a certain type of mental toughness. I had to do it — that’s why they kept me in the minors for four years and probably kept me from being a starter for another few years. I had to develop that mental toughness to not let every little thing get to me, whether it was good or bad.”
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