Wednesday, January 16, 2008

An end in sight...or a bad day at work?

You’ve probably read by now an article in this morning’s Washington Post that was penned by Mike Wise on the subject of Olaf Kolzig, goaltender and hockey icon in these parts.

It was interesting, to say the least…and a bit unsettling on a number of levels.

First, there is probably going to be a reaction to the “R” word being even mentioned (by Kolzig himself) – “retirement.” Kolzig notes that:

"I've talked to my wife about retirement. Things just haven't gone as well for me as I've thought the past two years. I'll wait and see how things play out."

“Retirement?” Kolzig? He’s been a fixture in this organization since he was drafted 19th overall in the 1989 entry draft. More than 300 regular season and playoff wins, 41 shutouts, the greatest playoff run in the history of the franchise in the 1998 Stanley Cup tournament, a Vezina Trophy, and holder of every meaningful record for goaltenders in the history of the franchise. An entire generation of Caps fans has grown up knowing only Kolzig as the team’s netminder.

But it’s easy to read too much into one quote, too. We’ll bet there isn’t a person reading these words this morning who hasn’t had a string of bad days at the office; who, if not quite on the wrong side of the boss, wasn’t quite on the same page, either. Kolzig has had what, for him no doubt, has been a frustrating year – his lowest save percentage in more than a decade (since before he became the full-time number one), a sub-.500 record (despite climbing back, as he points out from eight games under .500 to one game down), a change in coaches from one who played the position to one who didn’t.

And it is this last bit that is disturbing about the article. There are essentially two themes here, one every professional athlete has to face, the other of the sort that can be manufactured (or exaggerated) for effect.

The first is the athlete who, if he is not quite at the end of the road, can see it. Kolzig will be 38-years old in April. He’s played almost 750 games in the NHL (regular season and playoffs), faced more than 20,000 shots, played 43,000 minutes. He’s also won more than 300 games (regular season and playoffs), and one doesn’t reach that milestone without being a supremely proud and competitive individual, not to mention skilled. To expect such an individual to go quietly to the end of that road just isn’t going to happen, and it is that kind of stubborn resistance to the march of time and its relentless, inevitable effect on skills that makes a player such as Kolzig the elite goaltender he’s been for the past ten years, despite toiling for a club whose talents around him often did not come close to matching his.

In that, there is nothing surprising about the frustration that permeates his comments about his play and the potential for his retirement. For those of us who might be as close to that day as Kolzig, we might have said out loud, “maybe it’s time.” But a lot of the time that is as much frustration over things not going well at work as it is casting a serious eye toward a life change. The day is going to come when Kolzig will move to the next part of his life, but for fans, perhaps one should not read too much into these comments…not yet.

The other theme is conflict, and reading this article I wondered if it was real or manufactured. Kolzig and Glen Hanlon enjoyed the common experience of playing the position of goaltender. If they shared nothing else, it would be in the knowledge of what it takes to play that unique position and what it means to deal with those singular pressures night in and night out. But what Hanlon didn’t share as keenly, if one is only looking at the records of the club before and after the change behind the bench, is an appreciation for the nature of the other positions on the ice, especially those of the skilled positions. The wraps were tight around the skaters over the first 21 games, during which the Caps won only six times, only three times in last 18 games under Hanlon. It was a club that couldn’t, or perhaps more accurately – “didn’t” – score goals (this has not been a problem under Bruce Boudreau) and was watching the kids – Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green most notably – getting off to slower starts than fans might have imagined.

It wasn’t a case that Hanlon was a bad coach, per se, but rather that he might have been a poor match for this club at the state of development it was in. While he might have – and certainly indicated – that he was the right man for the job during the early days of the rebuild, when kids needed protective cover to develop, he might not have been as willing to throw off the wraps when it was necessary to do so, to allow the skills the players have (especially the younger ones) express themselves.

Enter Bruce Boudreau, who “raised” some of these kids in Hershey and who was/is a bigger risk taker in terms of the offensive aspects of the game – sometimes at the expense of goaltenders. Kolzig’s statistics have suffered under Boudreau – 3.14, .879 in 21 games – while his win-loss record has improved (10-6-4). But Sunday, he was pulled after 26:08 and giving up four goals on 16 shots. Kolzig noted that the goals were not so much bad as they were, in his word, “circumstantial.” He has a point. For example, the last goal – the one that sent him to the bench – deflected off a stick, and he still managed to get a glove on it, although not enough to keep it out of the net.

Out of this, we’re provided this comment…

"Bruce is not a goaltender guy. One thing about Bruce, he's hard on goalies because he doesn't understand the position. And a lot of coaches that haven't played the position are usually that way. You know: 'Just stop the puck and get it done. Doesn't matter how or what.' That's something I've got to get used to because I've had Glennie here for so long and obviously being a goaltender, he understands the situation and the position."

A lot of folks are going to read that first sentence and mutter, “uh-oh, there’s a problem in the locker room…the coach and the team leader aren’t on the same page.” I read the last sentence…”it’s something I’ve got to get used to.” Again, think of your own situation where you might have worked for a boss who shares your educational or professional experience. You achieve something of a comfort level in that working relationship. Then, a new boss arrives – different experience, different attitude, different philosophy. Have you felt somewhat “apart” as a result of that, that perhaps the new boss doesn’t “understand” your situation or your needs? Look at it another way by way of a question…”was Ron Wilson a goaltender guy?” Kolzig won an Eastern Conference championship with Wilson. I don’t read anything into “that’s something I’ve got to get used to” other than precisely that. It is a new working environment.

But Wise chose to play an odd twist that underlines the nature of the “conflict” – there is the gratuitous swipe at Boudreau (“essentially the Crash Davis of hockey?”), and the reference to Kolzig as “a piece of Washington sports memorabilia.” Both comments seem to me unfair to their subjects, characterizing one as the hockey equivalent of a bus-riding bumpkin (who, not insignificantly, won more than 330 games in the AHL with consecutive trips to the league championship final, winning once), the other as a relic to be dusted occasionally and treated lovingly until he can go out on his own terms. And underlying that is – as always, it seems – the contract, in this case the absence of discussions of an extension for Kolzig.

The object of the exercise is to win games and compete for championships. Sports is the ultimate meritocracy in that respect, and we suspect both coach and player know that. The livelihood of each depends on being successful in that pursuit. The Caps are winning (which means Kolzig has been winning, even if his “statistics” are not up to his usual standard), largely on the basis of an emergence of what was until late November dormant fire-power, but occasionally as a result of the efforts of the big guy in goal.

Kolzig isn’t quite done, yet, although he has many more games behind him than ahead of him. Boudreau isn’t entirely ignorant as to the value and necessity of having a strong, experienced netminder to be there when the kids get a bit too rambunctious.

I suspect that while there are those who will read a bit too much into the quotes and general tenor of the article, it is merely a snapshot of the occasional frustration one experiences from time to time as a professional in a changing work setting, the kind of which that might get a person thinking about retirement or perhaps a new job. It might come to that, but “might” is a far cry from “will.”

As for the situation here, read it for what it is…”that’s something I have to get used to.”

A SWEEP!....Caps 4 - Senators 2

“O” is for Ovechkin scoring often…

“T” is for the times we kicked your ass…

“T” is for the two goals in the third frame…

“A” is for your always falling short [just falling shor-r-r-r-rt]

“W’s” for the win that still eludes you

“A” is for the Caps fans going, “ahhhhhh…”

Put them all together, they spell…

Ottawa…a word that means a sweep to me-e-e-e-e-e.

OK, it’s not Rodgers and Hammerstein, but it’s late, and the letters fit. Sue me.

The Caps completed the “SSS” – the “season series sweep” of the Ottawa Senators tonight with a come-from-behind 4-2 win at Verizon Center. It was a “welcome back to the living” night for Alexander Semin, who scored two goals – one real purdy and one real…well, it counted – and notched an assist while going plus-one and getting the game’s first star.

Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin scored the other goals (Ovechkin’s being the game-winner), while Tomas Fleischmann might have played his best all-around game as a Cap in getting two assists and doing everything but actually scoring Semin’s second goal.

The Caps’ scoring was varied in its style. Green got his goal moments after failing to connect on a weak side feed from Viktor Kozlov in the Olympia corner on a Caps power play. The puck came to Kozlov once more, Green pinched into a seam once more, Kozlov rocketed a pass across once more, and Green one-timed it behind Emery. Persistence paying off...not to mention the Senators not watching or not remembering watching tape of Green lately.

Semin got his first of the evening when Joe Corvo had a brain spasm and tried a rink wide pass to the blue line from deep in his right wing corner. Semin picked off the pass and made Wade Redden look rather pylon-ish in stickhandling around him, faking goalie Ray Emery to the ice, and water-bottling the goal over Emery’s glove.

Ovechkin got the game winner on another power play when left alone in the high slot to collect a rebound off a shot from Brooks Laich. He had only to rifle a wrister through Emery, who could only tilt his head to the rafters wondering how the puck got through.

Fleischmann put on a fine display of stick-to-it when he collected a loose puck at the top of the Ottawa zone that eluded three Senators, fired a wrister that Emery stopped, dug after the rebound – kicking it to his stick as he was circling behind the net, chipping the puck out and off the side of Emery’s mask, where is fell at the goalie’s feet for Semin to knock it in.

The game looked a lot different than the previous three games of the series. Missing Dany Heatley, and with Jason Spezza still sore from a hit by Freddy Meyer in Sunday’s game against the Islanders, Ottawa looked as if they would play a more conventional road game – shortening the clock, playing conservatively, looking for opportunities.

The Caps very nearly played into their hands, treating the puck like a flapjack on the end of a spatula for the first half of the first period. It was the very image of “lackadaisical.” But the Caps righted themselves in the second half of the period to take an 11-5 lead in shots, even as the period ended scoreless.

After that, it was a case of who would suffer most from the attrition in talent. Ottawa’s top line, without Heatley and with Ilja Zubov skating on it for many shifts in his NHL debut, looked very much out of sync. Alfredsson was left to try to do a lot on his own, which isn’t what one would expect out of the Senator’s top line.

On the other side, the absence of Michael Nylander – lost for the rest of the season to a shoulder injury – made for odd power play units, Donald Brashear and Boyd Gordon getting substantial time.

But the power play was the scoring difference for the Caps as they converted two of four chances, while the Senators failed to convert either of their chances, including 17 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage in the second period.

Brent Johnson got what might have been considered a surprise start, and almost didn’t make out of the first minute of play, when he was steamrolled by Chris Neil at the top of the crease. Johnson stayed down for about a minute, and it looked for a moment that Olaf Kolzig wouldn’t get to spend the evening modeling the latest in baseball cap fashion. But Johnson shook it off and ended up turning away 26 of 28 shots – an achievement, even against an undermanned Ottawa squad.


- Antoine Vermette won 13 of 15 draws for Ottawa. He also finished the series against Washington without a point.

- 13 Caps skaters had hits…none of them were named “Matt Bradley” or “Milan Jurcina.” That’s not an indictment of Bradley or Jurcina, both of whom had pretty solid games (Bradley, especially, who generated a sizable number of chances with pressure on Ottawa forwards)…it was just odd.

- 12 Caps had blocked shots in an indication of a greater willingness to do the little things than they cared to exhibit in the loss to the Flyers on Sunday. And while there isn’t a stat for “rebounds,” the Caps did a much better job of clearing them and preventing Ottawa from getting cheap second-hand lay-ups.

- Once again, it seems as if Brooks Laich is all over the score sheet…an assist, two shots, three hits, a blocked shot, and even on ten draws in a little over 13 minutes.

- Five…the Caps have climbed to within five points of eighth-place Boston and five points of the division leader Atlanta (that’s right, the club that lost six games to start the season…is the Southeast wacky, or what?).

- Two…the Caps are within two games of .500 and can reach that break-even mark if they win the last two games of this home stand against Edmonton and Florida.

- None…as in “no one-goal games.” Each of the Caps’ wins in this season series was by multiple goal margins (two goals twice, three goals twice). They outscored Ottawa 22-12.

It wasn’t the prettiest of wins, it wasn’t the thrill ride of the 8-6 game in the last game of 2007. But a win is a win, and a sweep is a sweep. And no…there isn’t a soul with a brain cell firing who wishes the Caps were playing these guys every night.