In the game of hockey, there is one player that sits on the last line of defense, patiently waiting to do his job: make big saves and keep the puck out of the net. For the Washington Capitals, they have been fortunate to have an excellent line of goalies throughout their tenure in the NHL.
The South African-born netminder was a first-round pick, going to the Capitals 19th overall in the 1989 NHL Draft. While Olaf Kolzig took a few years to earn playing time with Washington, once he emerged, he became the bedrock in goal for Washington for over a decade.
While he first appeared in the NHL in a pair of games in October of 1989, Kolzig was put into the net due to a number of injuries, but it would be years before he appeared with the Capitals again. He spent his time with the ECHL’s Hampton Roads Admirals, the AHL’s Baltimore Skipjacks and even was lent to the Buffalo Sabres’ farm team in the AHL, the Rochester Americans, before he got another game with the Capitals in January 1992.
Kolzig played seven games for the Capitals in the 1993-94 season, but lost all of them, bringing his career NHL mark to 0-10-0 five years after being drafted, and then went 2-8-2 in the truncated 1994-95 NHL season as the team was desperate for any decent goaltending.
But Kolzig was a late bloomer, and quickly became an NHL goaltender that spring.
Jim Carey, who had come into the starting role in that 1994-95 season, stumbled badly in the playoffs and Kolzig earned his first playoff win against the Pittsburgh Penguins that spring. While Carey won the Vezina Trophy the following year, Kolzig proved he could be a starting goaltender in the NHL by winning the first two games of the series and keeping the Capitals competitive, posting a .935 save percentage (SV%) in five games against a potent Penguins team.
Carey was gone by the middle of the next season in a trade with former Conn Smythe winner Bill Ranford from the Boston Bruins, and Kolzig eventually took his chance at a starting role eight years after being selected.
Rise to the Top
In 1997-98, his first season as the Capitals’ starter, Kolzig impressed in 64 games, going 33-18-10 with a .920 SV% and a 2.20 goals against average (GAA). He was selected to the All-Star Game in Vancouver, and was a tall, acrobatic goaltender who was able to make spectacular saves, just when the team needed one.
What made Kolzig so dynamic was his athleticism. He had great flexibility and lateral movement and could get across fast. “Godzilla” was also outstanding when it came to following and reading the play and knowing exactly from where the player was going to shoot the puck.
A team that had seen their goaltending fade in the playoffs, that year saw some of the best playoff goaltending in Capitals history. In 21 games, Kolzig went 12-9 with a .941 SV%, a 1.95 GAA and four shutouts. In the first round against the Bruins, he had a 52-save effort in a Game 3 win, then followed up with a 38-save shutout — both at FleetCenter. After dispatching the Bruins in six games, Kolzig had back-to-back shutouts against the Ottawa Senators in the second round in the series’ final two games. Paired against Dominik Hasek in the Eastern Final, Kolzig allowed just nine goals in six games as Washington advanced to their first-ever Stanley Cup Final appearance.
While the Capitals fell to Detroit in four games, Washington would not have reached their greatest moment to date without Kolzig’s heroics, as he quickly became a rock in the Caps’ net.
Creating a Legacy
Kolzig become the team’s starter for years, and was a player who spanned from the team’s Stanley Cup Final berth to the beginning of the Alex Ovechkin era. He played all but one of his 17 seasons in the NHL with Washington, and through his time with the Capitals, Kolzig was nominated three times for the Vezina Trophy and twice for the Hart, and was a three-time All-Star. He also won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 2006.
He also managed to break every goaltending record in the Capitals’ book. He is the team’s winningest goalie with 301 wins and played the most games with 711. He also holds the franchise record with 35 shutouts; he even scored 17 points in his time with the team. Additionally, his 18,013 saves are the most by any Capitals goalie ever.
For years, Kolzig was the organization’s most trusted man in net, and he thrived in the spotlight. He quickly set the bar for what it takes to be one of the most iconic goaltenders in the NHL, by showing off his speed.
He also played in the good times and bad for the team, not wanting to leave in the rebuild during the 2003-04 season and the bumpy years that followed. But the player that the rebuild generated, Ovechkin, helped return the team to the playoffs, and Kolzig was part of the 2007-08 Capitals team that qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the season.
However, after the team was eliminated in the postseason by the Philadelphia Flyers, Kolzig’s time as a player with the Capitals came to an end. While he spent one season with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008-09 — the only eight games where he didn’t pull on a Capitals sweater — he eventually returned to the team as a goaltender coach, and got a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup with the Capitals after they defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in 2018.
Before he became the bearded, long-haired “Holtbeast” that we know today, Braden Holtby had a long ride to the top of the NHL. He was a fourth-round pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, and the team had quite a stable of goaltenders as he tried to break into the league. After he spent time with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays and won a Calder Cup with the Hershey Bears in 2009-10, Holtby made his NHL debut the next season with the Capitals in November 2010, winning his first two games against Boston and Philadelphia, and earning his first shutout that March against the Edmonton Oilers — a team he told reporters afterwards he didn’t like growing up in Saskatchewan.
Making the Cut
While Holtby spent most of the following season with the Bears, his call up to the Capitals in March 2012 turned into a longer stay than anyone expected — even Holtby himself. With the Capitals on the road and needing a goalie, he left his car in the short-term parking lot at Harrisburg Airport and flew to meet the team in Chicago.
The trip earned Holtby a chance to prove himself at the NHL level, and he did so, going 4-1-1 in six starts, and earned the chance to start the team’s playoff series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins.
Holtby played like a veteran against the Bruins, allowing just two goals in the first two games at Boston to earn the Capitals a split, then stopping 44 of 45 Boston shots in a Game 4 win. While the Bruins tried to rattle the goaltender in Game 7, Holtby stood tall, allowing just one goal in the team’s first deciding game triumph since the 1988 first-round win over Philadelphia. He continued his strong play against the New York Rangers, allowing just 15 goals in a seven-game series loss and giving the team another strong chance at an upset bid. He finished with a .935 SV% and a 1.95 GAA as he had the Capitals just a win shy of the conference finals.
With the strong play, Holtby eventually collected his car to a hefty price tag, but also the Capitals’ starting role. He started off the next season in Hershey due to the NHL lockout, but had a 23-12-1 with a .920 SV% in his first season as an NHL starter.
Rocky Road and Redemption
The next season, the Capitals struggled and were an incohesive team, and Holtby’s numbers sank as a result. He posted a .915 SV%, but a 23-15-4 record as the roster didn’t seem to be responding to coach Adam Oates. The organization did try to give Holtby a boost by bringing in Jaroslav Halak as a tandem, but it didn’t work. At the end of the season, Oates and general manager George McPhee were gone, and Barry Trotz and Brian MacLellan were brought in to try and right the ship.
Trotz gave Holtby the start, and the goaltender and the team had a stretch unlike any other in Washington.
In 2014-15, he got a full workload under Trotz, appearing in a career-best 73 games and leading the team to another second-round appearance, falling again to the Rangers in a tight seven-game series. Holtby finished fourth in Vezina voting with a 41-20-10 mark and a .923 SV%.
The following year, Holtby won the Vezina with his best regular season to date, going 48-9-7 and a .922 SV% as the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy for the second time in their history. The team repeated as the league’s top regular-season team in 2016-17, with Holtby going 42-13-6 and a .925 SV% with nine shutouts, but both seasons ended in disappointment with losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.
But the malaise that started following 2017-18 season turned into a tremendous playoff run. After a sub-par regular season — Holtby didn’t even start the team’s playoff opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets — he came in needing to save the Capitals’ season in Game 3, and he did, winning four straight as the Capitals advanced. Against the Penguins, he came up strong as Washington dispatched its nemesis in six games, despite losing some key players. And in the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning, he delivered back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7, giving Washington their second Stanley Cup Final berth.
Once in the Stanley Cup Final, after dropping Game 1, Holtby’s save on Alex Tuch in the third period of Game 2 became known as “The Save,” preserving Washington’s first-ever Stanley Cup Final win and leading to four straight victories that earned the team its first-ever championship. Holtby went 16-7 in the playoffs, with a .922 SV% and the two shutouts against the Lightning.
The Capitals suffered a bit of a Stanley Cup hangover in the following years, as Holtby’s play dipped as the team’s defensive core began to thin. In the 2020 offseason, he left the team that drafted him and signed with the Vancouver Canucks as an unrestricted free agent.
Holtby left tied with Kolzig for most shutouts as a Capital (35), and second in wins (282) and games played (468) and third in SV% (.916). He also is the team’s all-time leader in playoff appearances for a goaltender (97), most playoff wins (50), and playoff shutouts (7).
Carey was a unique goaltender in Capitals history, as he only spent two years in Washington, but those two years were among the league’s best. He was the second selection in the 1992 NHL Draft, and the University of Wisconsin product was called upon to save the floundering Capitals in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season — and he did.
Fifteen Minutes of Capitals’ Fame
At the end of February of 1995, the Capitals were 3-10-5 in a 48-game schedule. They were desperate for a sparkplug and they got it by calling up the 20-year-old Carey from the AHL’s Portland Pirates. He went 30-14-11 in the American League, and quickly made an impact on the Caps.
He won his NHL debut on Long Island on March 2, 1995, and went unbeaten in his first seven starts, with six wins and a tie. Washington went from seven games under .500 to two games above by the end of the month, and a team that appeared to be going nowhere fast qualified for the playoffs.
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Carey went 18-6-3 and posting an impressive 2.13 GAA that season. He was among the best goalies in the NHL and was named an All-Star, and finished second in Calder voting and third in Vezina voting, despite being a mid-season call-up.
However, Carey stumbled in Washington’s first-round playoff series against the Penguins, posting an ugly .834 SV% in a six-game loss.
In 1996, Carey rebounded to win the franchise’s first Vezina Trophy, posting excellent numbers in 71 games, and showing great ability in net. He led the league with nine shutouts and broke the former franchise record of 35 wins and posted a 2.26 GAA and a .906 SV%.
But, by the 1996 Playoffs, Kolzig had won the starting job against a Penguins team that tormented Carey, as he allowed 10 goals on 39 shots in three games of the series with an ugly 6.18 GAA and a .744 SV%.
An Odd Ending
Carey struggled with confidence and motivation the next year in Washington, going just 17-18-3. Just a day shy of two years since his first Capitals appearance, he was dealt in a package to Boston for Bill Ranford, Adam Oates and Rick Tocchet. He never regained his prime form and was out of the league in 1998-99 after a short stint with the St. Louis Blues.
But the time he was in the zone in Washington, there weren’t many who could compare to him.
“You just sat back in awe watching what he was doing when he first came into the league,” Kolzig told The Hockey News in 2016. “I was a first-round pick who was still trying to get some traction as far as a pro career in the NHL was concerned. To see this kid come in and make it look like it was peewee hockey was frustrating for me.”
Despite playing for just two seasons, Carey still is third with 14 shutouts in Capitals history, and second in goals-against average with 2.37 in his two seasons, and is one of two Washington goaltenders to win the Vezina. While his time in the nation’s capital wasn’t long, it certainly was some of the best goaltending when he was on his game.
Among the other Capitals goalies that have made an impact on the roster, Don Beaupre is one of the winningest goalies in Capitals history, earning the third-most wins in Capitals history with 128, having spent six years and 269 games with Washington, and being the standard bearer for goaltenders until Carey, Kolzig and Holtby came along.
Philipp Grubauer was mostly a backup, but was key to setting up the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run with strong play during that regular season, and has the best GAA (2.29) and save percentage (.923) of any Capitals netminder with at least 3,000 minutes played. One of the key aspects of the 2017-18 offseason is Washington resisted the temptation to entice Grubauer to go to the Vegas Golden Knights, giving Washington a nice 1-2 punch in net before sending him to the Colorado Avalanche following the Cup celebration.
From the 1980s rosters, Pete Peeters was the regular in Washington’s net, as he helped backstop the Capitals to the second round in 1986 and 1988 and was part of the team’s lone Patrick Division title in 1988-89, earning All-Star team votes in 1987-88 and 1988-89.
And, in terms of a single game performance, Bob Mason’s effort in the Easter Epic where he dueled Kelly Hrudey into the early hours of the morning of Game 7 of the Patrick Division Semi-Final in one of the most memorable games in NHL history earns a mention.
But the top three goalies in Capitals history, the top two of Kolzig and Holtby stand out far above the rest, both for their longevity and leading the Caps to the Stanley Cup Final.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.