For the past six season, the Capitals have followed a familiar script: They ride Alex Ovechkin and their elite offense to one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference, only to flame out within the first two rounds of the playoffs. The club's annual underperformance has been tied to its emphasis on scoring at the expense of defensive fundamentals, but some blame has also fallen on Washington's goaltenders.
Since 2007-08, the Caps' quest for a cornerstone netminder has led them to pin their hopes on Cristobal Huet, Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Tomas Vokoun and Braden Holtby, who has been their starter since the 2012 postseason. Holtby played all 14 of Washington's playoff games that spring, going 7-7 with a 1.95 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. It was a promising performance, but the Capitals fell to the Rangers in seven second-round games. Last season, Holtby was in net for all seven games of Washington's first-round loss to New York. Rather than cast about for another savior during the offseason, though, the Capitals decided to stay the course with guidance from one of their franchise icons.
Olaf Kolzig, Washington's first-year goalie coach, knows a thing or two about how to win in the nation's capital. The team's first-round pick in 1989, he spent 16 seasons in the Capitals' net, setting a slew of team records including career games (711), wins (301) and shutouts (35), and single season marks for appearances (73) and wins (41). Kolzig remains the only goalie to backstop Washington to the Stanley Cup finals. (The Capitals were swept by Detroit in '98.) Holtby, 24, Washington's fourth-round pick in 2008, grew up in Saskatchewan with an almost religious devotion to his position -- "I knew all the goalies," he says -- so he was well aware of Kolzig's exploits. Working together, the two have developed a comfortable, productive relationship.
"It's neat to have that respect [gained from watching Kolzig while growing up], but at the same time when you're at the level that we're at, you don't think about it anymore," Holtby said as he sat at his locker after a late November practice at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Va. "You think about us being equals and figuring out the best way to improve with each other."
So far, so good. Though Washington, like its goaltenders, is still a work in progress, this season is shaping up as potentially the best of Holtby's young career. In November he went 8-3-1 with a .933 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average. He's well on the way to topping his career-highs of 36 games and 23 wins (set last season), and he and Neuvirth, his backup, have combined for a .918 save percentage, eighth-best in the NHL. The numbers are even more impressive considering that the Capitals' defense is allowing 35 shots-against per game, the third-highest total in the league. The ability of Holtby and Neuvirth to stay sharp will be crucial to the team's fortunes.
In some ways, Washington is still getting the hang of coach Adam Oates' system. Last season, his first behind their bench, required a huge adjustment in a lockout-shortened schedule. The team started slowly and Ovechkin needed time to get used to his switch from left wing to right, but the Caps recovered. This season, their offense has been inconsistent at even strength while their power play, the NHL's best early on, has recently begun to sputter. Combined with the perception that the team's Stanley Cup window may be closing, there is tremendous pressure on the goalies.
Just a few years ago, Kolzig, 43, never envisioned himself coaching in the NHL. He retired in 2009 and was looking forward to spending more time with his family. But like many former athletes, he couldn't resist the lure of what he'd left behind. "Two years went by and I started to get the itch," he said. "I really started missing being around the guys and the game."
While Kolzig was thinking about returning to the NHL, Capitals goaltending development coach Dave Prior was coming to the realization that he couldn't do his job alone. The way Kolzig tells it, when goalie coach Arturs Irbe left Washington after two seasons, Prior was suddenly responsible for not only coaching the Caps' netminders, but also overseeing their prospects in the minors and preparing for the NHL draft.
"The position became so demanding," Kolzig recalled. "Dave approached the organization and said it would be great to have two people on board. I would take care of the development side down at (AHL) Hershey and (ECHL) Reading."
So Washington hired Kolzig as an associate goalie coach in June 2011, reuniting him with Prior, who had had molded Kolzig into a Vezina Trophy winner (2000) during the eight seasons they worked together in D.C. "For me, Dave was a mentor," Kolzig says. "I got into this because of Dave."
When Prior stepped down last September, the Capitals promoted Kolzig. "Obviously, Olie has been groomed for the position," Oates said at the time. "Olie and I played together (on the Capitals from 1997-2002), we roomed together, we have a great history together. I guess everybody felt it was time."
During his two years as an assistant to Prior, Kolzig didn't merely coach Washington's minor leaguers, including Holtby. He studied the changes that were making the NHL more offense-oriented. If goalies were going to survive, they would have to adapt to the faster game's new rules, shallower nets and smaller equipment.
"I thought there were some changes that needed to be made in terms of approach to the game," Kolzig said. "Nothing drastic, just a less aggressive style. Sit back, read the situation and then adjust depth accordingly."
Holtby, one of the team's most intensely focused players (his pregame routine includes meditation and visualization exercises), says that Kolzig has been helping him mentally as well as physically. "The one thing that Olie really preaches to me is patience," says Holtby. "He keeps reminding me how much patience can pay off. My nature is to be an aggressive goalie. That's how I grew up playing. I've never been afraid of getting beat by a goal that looks bad. Sometimes I try and force the issue with guys driving to the net. I like to get in their face and be more aggressive in that aspect instead of letting things come to me. Olie has been teaching me to pick and choose."
Like the play of Holtby and Neuvirth, Kolzig admits that his coaching style is "still evolving," but he tries to be a player's coach. "I can relay what I see from video, but not in a nerdy way," he said, chuckling. "In a digestible way. In a 'one of the guys' way."
Says Holtby: "He coaches the way players want to be coached. He's very honest about everything. As a professional athlete, you want to the truth, what he thinks you can do to be better. You want examples and the logic behind what you're being taught. He is thinking of our game because he has been there before."
Kolzig believes that it helps that he is not too far removed from his playing days, and both Holtby and Neuvirth stress the importance of being able to learn from a guy who still recalls facing the same challenges they do from day to day and night to night.
"It's great, especially in practice," Holtby said. "A lot of practices aren't exactly geared toward goaltending, That's one time where you have to control your frustration. The coaches, aside from goalie coaches, they try to understand, but you have to really experience it to understand what the frustrations are, and he gets it."
The Caps' goalies also appreciate having a confidant in Kolzig who is always on their side and can advocate on their behalf. "It's a very personal relationship," Holtby said, "and you need to trust each other."
Kolzig says a goalie's perspective is often ignored by coaches because, "to the other guys it's just, 'go out there and stop the puck.'" He'll point out that it's not so simple or easy. "We have our discussions in the coaches' room, and some will think a certain goal was a bad goal. We'll go over the video and I'll try to relay the situation through my eyes and relate it to them so they can understand it better. They haven't played goal. As the goalie, you have to see all the traffic, whereas those guys are just viewing the puck. That's part of my job, too. Make sense of some of the goals that they question.
"We're each other's sounding board," he continues. "A shoulder to cry on. Somebody who understands the ups and downs of being in goal."
And there will always be downs. Holtby says that Washington, after a sluggish 5-7-0 start, is "fortunate" to be fifth in the East -- thanks to an equally underwhelming performance by most of the other teams in the Metropolitan Division. Holtby has had his share of bad games this season, such as the one against Carolina on Dec. 3 when he allowed four goals on 23 shots and was benched for the third period of a 4-1 loss. He later lamented that he could have stopped the Hurricanes' first two goals, but Kolzig kept the outlook positive.
"There have been times when I think I can do better, and I want to be better," Holtby said. "Sometimes I think he believes in me more than I believe in myself to get to a certain shot."
Perhaps that belief, and Kolzig's instruction, will write a more satisfying ending to what has become a frustrating rite of spring for the Capitals. The signs for success are certainly there.