Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 5

Number 5. Goalie Soap Opera

According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, a “soap opera” is described as a serialized drama “told through a series of individual, narratively linked installments.” The description goes on to say that “the viewer's understanding of and pleasure in any given serial installment is predicated, to some degree, upon his or her knowledge of what has happened in previous episodes.”

Well, if ever there was a narrative that fit the description of “soap opera,” it was the drama surrounding the goaltending position for the Capitals.

The story began in those difficult early days of the 2007-2008 season, when the Caps were looking less like a contender and more like a collection of rubes not ready for the big time. They gave up goals by the bushel – seven to Buffalo, five to the Islanders, five more to Carolina, another five to Tampa Bay…another five to Tampa Bay. And we weren’t out of November yet. But the Caps were so bad, it was hard to tell if it was a product of some general suckitude, or if it was a signal that the skills of long-time number one goaltender Olaf Kolzig had eroded to the point where he was no longer as reliable as Caps fans had been accustomed to seeing in the past.

The change in coaches in November brought a change in philosophy that put more pressure on goaltenders. The Caps would score more (or at least attack more), and goaltenders might find themselves with more odd-man rushes to defend. The effect on Kolzig’s play was suggestive. In 13 games in December, he was 5-3-3, but he allowed 40 goals (a GAA of 4.03). His record was better to open the new year – 6-2-0 in January – but he was still allowing goals at a disturbing rate (3.59 GAA).

Kolzig was still able to muster games in which he could steal a win – a 2-1 win against Colorado, a 39-save effort in a 3-2 win against Tampa Bay. But those games were occurring with less frequency than he was capable of summoning in the past.

Meanwhile, Brent Johnson was performing well in a backup capacity, but both his performance in a limited role, and the reputation of Kolzig and his preferences for a heavy workload argued against Johnson assuming a larger burden of responsibility.

At the trading deadline, the Caps were not necessarily looking for a goaltender, but one became available when the Montreal Canadiens decided that their goalie of the future – Carey Price – would become the goalie of the present. Cristobal Huet was made available, and Washington acted upon the opportunity. They moved Huet to Washington for a second round draft pick in 2009. As if almost to celebrate by saying, “oh yeah?”, Kolzig turned aside 34 of 35 shots in a 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on the evening of the trade.

Not that it mattered. Huet arrived and promptly authored a 4-0 shutout of the New Jersey Devils on the road. It was the first shutout by a Capitals goaltender since Kolzig turned the trick on opening night.

Kolzig was relegated to the bench and Johnson to the press box as Huet kept playing and kept winning. In 13 games, Huet would allow as many as three goals only twice (both of them wins, oddly enough). He would pitch one more shutout and would finish up the regular season 11-2-0 with a 1.63 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage.

Meanwhile, as the Caps and Huet were closing strong, Kolzig was afforded a chance to spell Huet in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks. Kolzig himself had won his previous four decisions and had a streak of seven straight games (dating back to the 4-1 win over Minnesota) in which he allowed two goals or fewer. Unfortunately, he got the Blackhawks on a night when they were honoring former Hawks goalie Tony Esposito. The Caps being in a position of playing as if they were in a single elimination tournament when it came to trying to qualify for the playoffs, Kolzig stepped in and allowed three goals in less than ten minutes, losing the game 5-0.

After that, it was Huet all the time. He got the call in the last seven games of the regular season, winning them all in the Caps’ miracle finish to win the Southeast Division and the only playoff spot a division team would secure.

Huet would be the go-to goalie for the opening round against the Flyers. However, he laid an egg of sorts in the opening game, allowing four goals for the first time as a Cap in a 5-4 win, a victory made possible by some third period heroics by Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin. He would lose the next three games in the series, giving up 11 goals in the process. The question was whether the Caps would call upon Kolzig to jump start the team and perhaps get another big game performance from the veteran. They didn’t.

When Huet started Game 5 in Washington it was clear that he was the horse the Caps would ride, for good or ill, and that Kolzig had perhaps played his last game of the season, if not his career in Washington.

That is what happened. Huet and the Caps forced a Game 7, but they could not get over that last hump, losing to the Flyers in overtime of the deciding game. After that series-ending game, Kolzig removed his nameplate from his locker stall and was an absentee for a team meeting the following morning. He would remark later that “there wasn't anything hateful,” that he wanted to avoid the media in the aftermath of the loss. But it seemed a clear signal that his days as a Cap were over.

However, the matter complicating things was that Huet was an unrestricted free agent. While there was every expectation (well, among Caps fans) that Huet would re-sign with the Caps, thus softening the blow of a Kolzig departure, there was the possibility that Huet would accept employment elsewhere. What no one (well, what no Caps fan) expected was that the Chicago Blackhawks – a team already on the hook for a large goaltender contract for Nikolai Khabibulin – would swoop in and sign Huet away from Washington, a four-year, $22.4 million deal. That left the Caps with Brent Johnson, who hadn’t played in more than half of his team’s games since the 2001-2002 season, and a couple of prospects thought to be years away from the NHL.

OK, so now what?

Well, it didn’t take long for a “Plan B” to emerge… the question was, could it be a successful plan? That plan ended up being to sign Colorado netminder Jose Theodore to a two-year, $9.0 million contract. It was a deal fraught with risk, since Theodore had been, to be charitable, inconsistent since his Vezina/Hart winning season in 2001-2002. A record of 112-113-11-10 since that season was testament to a certain level of mediocrity. But he finished with a rush at the end of the regular season last year and won a playoff series, so signing him to a deal was an educated risk on the part of the Caps.

When Theodore gave up four goals in less than 30 minutes on opening night, that risk looked to have little potential for return, and although his won-loss record was respectable early (4-2-0 in his first half dozen decisions), it was not as if he was a rock in goal. As a product of his inconsistency, Brent Johnson was given a bigger share of the load, and he took advantage of the opportunity. Although Johnson ended up taking the loss on that opening night of the 2008-2009 season, he proceeded to go undefeated in his next seven decisions (5-0-2) and only gave up more than two goals once, when he allowed three in a 4-3 shootout loss to New Jersey. After losing three consecutive decisions on a road trip in December, Johnson then won another five games in succession.

But then, in the late stages of that run by Johnson, things took a turn…

Johnson had been nursing a hip injury that he aggravated in a 3-1 win over Boston on December 10th. He might have sat out the following game two days later against the Ottawa Senators, but then Theodore cam up lame with a hip injury of his own on the morning of the game. The Hershey Bears were on a Texas road swing, which made the logistics of getting a goalie from the farm a difficult proposition. It is at times like this when every club should have a former college goaltender working in their offices. Fortunately for the Caps, they had such a remedy. Brett Leonhardt, who works by day in media production, was tapped on the shoulder and told to get to the rink. He was going to take warm-ups as the backup to the injured Johnson, who would go that night. Meanwhile (and isn’t there always a “meanwhile” at about this point of the soap opera?), Simeon Varlamov was getting a phone call as the Bears were on their way between cities on their Texas trip to get on a plane and high-tail it back to DC.

Leonhardt took warm-ups and took the bench as backup in the event Johnson couldn’t go, but Johnson gutted out a superb performance in beating Ottawa, 5-1 (Varlamov getting to the rink in time to replace Leonhardt on the bench mid-way through the first period). No sooner had Varlamov dressed for his first appearance on an NHL bench than he was tapped to start the following night in, of all places, Montreal against the Canadiens. Varlamov stopped 32 of 33 shots, including all 14 in a tight third period, in a 2-1 win over the Canadiens at Bell Centre. He was almost as good in his home debut five days later as he stopped 29 of 31 shots in a 4-2 win over St. Louis.

As 2008 ends, the Caps are left with unfinished plots, subplots, interwoven stories, and general “are they making this stuff up” kinds of stories between the pipes. Can Theodore, who was lit up for four goals and pulled before returning and slamming the door in a 5-4 comeback win over the Rangers in the last game before Christmas find any semblance of consistency, let alone superior play? Can Johnson shake off the lingering injury bug and grab the number one position he seemed poised to earn with his early play? Are both looking over their shoulders at the young phenom in Hershey who won both of his decisions in his NHL debut, stopping 61 of 64 shots in doing so? Will the Caps and coach Bruce Boudreau at some point take what might be the ultimate risk for a team with the skating talent to go far in the playoffs and give the keys to the phenom and say, “it’s all yours, kid?”

2008 has been a never-ending soap opera that has taken the team and its fans on quite a ride. And it’s not over yet. But it has been one of the top stories of the year.

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