Saturday, December 15, 2007

Kolzig's Rough Night: Caps lose 5-3

Capitals 3, Sabres 5

Going into this season a lot of things would have to had to have gone right for the Capitals to earn one of the Eastern Conference's eight playoffs spots; one of them was that Olaf Kolzig needed to steal some games for the team. So far this hasn't happened this season and last night against Buffalo Kolzig cost his team the game. Of the five goals the Sabres scored last night one was an empty netter and three were ones Kolzig should have had.

The Sabres first goal was the most frustrating because it was not only a physical mistake but a mental one. Physical mistakes like flubbed passes, missed rebounds or stumbling on the ice will happen to anyone sooner or later, and can only be helped so much. But there are no excuses for mental errors. Especially when you're a 37-year-old veteran who's supposed to be a leader on a young team, and Kolzig's mistake was a big one. Coming out to play the puck was not the problem; in fact it was probably the right decision. But the way he chose to play it was downright stupid. As a netminder, if you're going to play the puck you need to slide your blocker hand up to the top of the stick and play it like any other skater (for example), you cannot slap at it with the backhand like Kolzig did. I learned this within the first few months of playing goalie as a nine-year-old, just from common sense (rather than a coach) so I'm sure Kolzig knows better, and of course the end result of his bad decision was as bad as it gets. Kolzig was out of the net and put the puck right on Roy's stick. The only way he could have made things easier would have been if he'd picked the puck up and dropped it into his own net.

The second goal wasn't entirely Kozlig's fault (it rarely is when you have a guy like Maxim Afinogenov bearing down on you), but he should have had that particular puck. Yes, Mike Green tipped the puck and it probably threw Olie off a bit, but it didn't take a weird bounce or anything like that - it slid by Olie's leg on the ice and Kolzig needs to have the bottom portion of the net taken away so that a puck like that doesn't get in.

The Sabres' third goal (from Drew Stafford) was another than was Kolzig's fault. Behind the net is not generally a high-scoring area and it's not a priority for defensive players compared to the slot, the corner or the point because scoring opportunities don't come from behind the net very often unless the player is allowed to move through the area very quickly (or is Wayne Gretzky). Stafford was not moving particularly fast, didn't wheel his way into the slot and didn't get off a particularly good shot. Simply put, there's no reason that puck should have wound up in the Capitals net.

This isn't the first game Kolzig's had like this in the 2007-08 season. While he's been good on some nights and made some great saves, far too many shots have slipped under Kolzig's legs or through the five-hole. Save percentage is not a perfect indicator of a goaltender's ability and with the relatively inexperienced defense Kolzig probably faces tougher shots than the average netminder. That said, after last night's game Kolzig's save percentage is .896. Among qualified leaders the median is .907, and Kolzig ranks 34th out of 43 goalies who qualify. This is simply not getting the job done.

Even during his prime, Kolzig was not as good as he was often given credit for. I've always felt that, even at his best, many of Kolzig's goaltending attributes were average or slightly above average - his lateral movement, reflexes and ability to make the most difficult saves. None of this is surprising for a positional goalie, and as far as positional goalies go Kolzig was one of the best: huge, good on his angles, technically sound and great positionally. Given this, Kolzig was perfect for the Capitals in the 90's, when the Caps were a sound defensive team. With the rest of the team allowing very few shots Kolzig could play the angles, control rebounds and be very successful. Recently Kolzig has become vulnerable with a young team in front of him, especially in the post-lockout NHL because of his style of play.

What is comes down to at this point is: right now, Kolzig is a mediocre NHL goalie. I've been holding off on saying that, but the fact it is it's true. Since the lockout Kozlig's has a .902 save percentage and only two shutouts; this season he's had as many games (8) with a save percentage of .880 or worse as he's had with a save percentage of .910 or better. Since his last solid game on November 28th against Florida, Kolzig has stopped only 85.8% of shots against him.

Recently the Ducks put Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers, causing a debate to crop up amongst Capitals fans about whether the team should place a claim on him to replace Brent Johnson as the backup (I thought yes; others disagreed). Bryzgalov went on to be claimed by the Phoenix Coyotes, where he posted a .921 save percentage. Hindsight is of course 20/20, but perhaps the Capitals would have been well served to pluck Bryzgalov from the waiver wire to be their starter (or at least for a platoon role).

I appreciate all that Kolzig's done for the franchise over the years both on and off the ice and he will deservingly go down as one of the best to ever wear a Capitals uniform and will see his his number raised to the rafters. But this Capitals team isn't good enough to make the kind of run it needs to with a sub-par starting goaltender. If the Caps want to challenge for a playoff spot Kolzig is going to need to significantly step up his play.

Aside of Kolzig the team played decent, but not great. On the plus side the Caps put good pressure on the Sabres for the most part and moved the puck well in the offensive zone, especially on the powerplay. On the negative side the team struggled to get the puck out of their zone too often, let a man open in front to score the Sabres fourth goal and were called for six minor penalties, including one for too many men.

As frustrated as I was with Friday's loss, the Capitals had a very successful homestand, winning three of four from difficult opponents, getting their offense going, showing they can win close games and, perhaps most importantly, playing with confidence. It would be hard to overestimate the effect of the newfound confidence for the players - earlier in the season they would have folded in each of the last four games and picked up two points if they were lucky.

With that in mind, the Capitals play Saturday against Tampa Bay, a team they should beat. If they can do so they could be a little as six points out of a playoff spot and seven points out of the division lead. As we've seen, it could be much worse.


"It was a rookie mistake and was inexcusable with a minute left, especially with a one-goal lead and playing pretty good."
-Kolzig on his play that led to the Sabres first goal.

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