For 11 years the Washington Capitals never had to ask who was in net. The answer was Olaf Kolzig, a goalie who brought the franchise the closest they’ve ever come to winning the Stanley Cup. In the ‘97-‘98 season the club made it all the way to the Cup finals, winning six overtime games along the way, but were eventually swept by the Detroit Red Wings. The ‘98 playoff team was captained by current head coach Dale Hunter and Kolzig stood between the pipes.
Kolzig now serves as the club’s associate goalie coach. While echoes of the past guide the current Caps along their recent playoff runs, their lack of post-season success has been blamed on many things: coaching, star player performance, defense. Through this, though, the Caps have not gone into the playoffs with a secure No. 1 premier goalie since Kolzig.
Disclaimer: For some Cap fans this may be painful to read as it re-opens the playoffs wounds of yesteryear just when you’re trying to get excited again. Caps fans discretion is advised.
In 2008, the Caps hadn’t qualified for the playoffs in five years and their 37-year-old goaltender was showing signs of age. Kolzig had suffered an MCL tear, which was a blow for a player who had never missed more than four games in a row. His performance was underwhelming with a 2.91 GAA and a 29-27-8 record at the trade deadline. This situation forced GM George McPhee to make a brazen move – after 15 seasons with Washington, Kolzig was replaced by Cristobal Huet from the Montreal Canadiens. Kolzig didn’t appreciate this show of no-confidence from McPhee. “What I’m shocked about is that there are three goalies here,” Kolzig said. “That’s probably the thing I’m shocked about. We’ve got a world-class goaltender coming in.”
Huet stepped in regardless, winning 11 of 13 starts with a formidable 0.936 save percentage that helped push the Caps into the playoffs. Once the playoffs rolled around the job was Huet’s – Kolzig didn’t see a single start. However, Kolzig got the last laugh as Huet didn’t maintain his regular season form and allowed 22 goals in just seven games, leading to a speedy elimination by the Philadelphia Flyers. A few weeks later, Kolzig announced he would not be joining the team next season.
In the following off-season, Kolzig signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning and Huet by the Chicago Blackhawks. Washington signed Jose Theodore to a two year $9 million contract and tried to start over.
Through the regular season it became easy to believe the Caps had solved their goaltending woes. Theodore posted above-average numbers, helping the Caps get 64 points in his 57 starts that season. The team once again qualified for the post-season.
In Theodore’s first playoff game as a Cap he allowed four goals in a loss to the Rangers. From this point on Theodore wasn’t given another chance. It was up to backup Semyon Varlamov, who had only played six NHL games in his career. Varlamov was thrust into the playoff pressure and posted aggressively mediocre numbers in a playoff run that saw the Caps fall to what would become the Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins that year.
Varlamov and Theodore went into the next season with the starter position still in question as it had been since Kolzig left. In the ‘09-‘10 season the Caps’ raw offensive prowess and young talent brought them their first ever Presidents’ Trophy. Their success that season had little to do with goaltending, spreading out 82 games across three goaltenders who had all played over 15 games each.
It was Theodore though that had the standout year, ending the season on a 20-0-4 streak. It was Groundhog Day all over again, with Theodore falling apart in the playoffs replaced by Varlamov in Game 2. The series with the 8th seeded Canadiens skating by, carried through the series by stellar goaltending in Jaroslav Halak.
At the start of the season McPhee had to ask himself once again – who’s in net? Over the summer Theodore had taken off for Minnesota. Caps management had lost confidence in Varlamov, who was dealt to Colorado. McPhee took his 2nd round pick goaltender in Michal Neuvirth, who had only played 22 NHL games before he was given the lead job last year. After a decent playoff run for an inexperienced goaltender who had a 2.34 GAA average, the Caps were swept in the second round by the Lightning.
Vokoun is battling a nagging groin injury with only nine games remaining in the season; meanwhile Neuvirth has lost three of his last five starts and posted a 2.94 GAA in March. The third-stringer is Braden Holtby, a 22-year-old with a 4.03 GAA this year and only 16 National League starts, you gotta ask yourself – who’s in net?