The Washington Capitals will be trying to avoid their ninth straight defeat tonight when they face off against the Boston Bruins. The Capitals are coming off a 4-2 loss in Atlanta on Monday, and will be looking to end this three game road trip on a winning note at the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston. The Bruins on the other hand, are still technically in the playoff race and need the two points if they are to stay on pace with the other teams in the Eastern Conference hunt. To an outsider looking in, the conclusion may seem obvious; but do the Capitals have an ace up their sleeve?
Thursday night's game marks the return of Caps' goaltender Olaf Kolzig. Kolzig has missed the last thirteen games with a knee injury that he suffered at practice on February 12th. The Capitals have won just one game since his injury (1-8-4), and although there were many other contributing factors to Washington's slide, Kolzig's return is a welcomed one - to the fans, to his teammates, to the coach, and to Olie himself.
Kolzig said, "I tried to stay involved as much as I could, and I made some road trips with the guys just to stay involved. [Wednesday] was really my first full practice with the team; we had an optional practice [Tuesday]. Thatís the part that stinks. The rehab is the rehab, and riding the bike. You want to be out there playing and with the guys, and really thatís the thing you miss the most."
It was all new territory for Kolzig; he's never missed more than four straight starts because of injury in his entire career. As a former NHL goaltender himself, Coach Glen Hanlon attributed that directly to Olie's physical prowess and work ethic; "First, his size and strength is one thing. A lot of these injuries come from contact. If youíre going to run into him, youíre going to take the brunt of it. Secondly, itís a commitment to fitness that he makes every summer and during the course of the year to do the things that he needs to do to stay healthy. Itís pretty incredible."
Hanlon knows better than anyone that his team sorely needs the leadership on and off the ice, but his young players know it as well. Young defenseman Steve Eminger offered that, "Just having him Ė not just back in the net Ė but back in the dressing room [is important]. He is definitely our main leader."
The steadying influence on this young team may actually be more in need than his great goaltending is at this point. Kolzig returns to a line-up fraught with confidence issues, and out of the playoff hunt. Since he was shelved with the injury, he has watched his team be dismantled by both injuries and the trade deadline.
While the rest of the Capitals are excited that he is returning, should Kolzig himself be?
After all, the Caps are conducting late season prospect tryouts and the result is a lot of playing time for young, inexperienced defenders like Jeff Schultz and Mike Green. While the experience gained by both of those young hockey players is invaluable, Kolzig will be the only line of defense for some of their mistakes.
He's just the man for the job. Kolzig has seen just about everything over his career, and the team can only benefit from those experiences. It's amazing what a difference a strong locker room presence can bring to a line-up each and every night. Can Kolzig's return alone, be enough to turn around the Capitals' dismal fortunes?
It can't hurt.
The Capitals sent goaltender Frederic Cassivi to their affiliate Hershey Bears team in the American Hockey League to make room for Kolzig's return. Cassivi saw action in four games while recalled; three partial games ( Florida - Feb. 27, New York Islanders - March 3, and Atlanta - March 12), and one start against the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 6th. In his tour of duty, he was 0-1-1 and posted a 2.59 goals against average.
Washngton returns home Friday to face the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Verizon Center. Tickets are still available.
Ovie Watch: Despite the Capitals' horrid post-Christmas break slump, despite a few extended personal 'dry spells', Alex Ovechkin has 41 goals. There are only two players in the NHL with more goals - Vincent Lecavalier (46) and Dany Heatley (42). With little firepower around him, and the weight of resurrecting an entire league on he and Sidney Crosby's shoulders, there's much to be said for the character that Ovie has shown in just his sophomore season. There's even more to be said for the Russian's goal-scoring prowess.
With just twelve games to go, can Alex catch fire and reach the 50-goal mark? Don't put it past him.