LANDOVER -- When a kid shows up in the big time, no matter the sport involved, he's expected to have some fear, awe and timidity in his traveling bag, along with hope and expectation. This is especially so if the lad is only two years removed from high school.
So what is it with this new goaltender the Washington Capitals are featuring these days? Maybe Jim Carey forgot he's 20 years old and he's not supposed to have all this self-assurance and composure yet.
Three times in the first few minutes of a NHL game against the Caps last night, the Stanley Cup champ New York Rangers sent guys in on Carey on breakaways. "Like I said, I like to get into it and be tested right off," quipped Carey.
Yes, guys can quip when they pass such a stern test -- the Rangers got just one goal out of their big push -- and the home team ends up on the long end of a 4-2 score. Carey has been a Cap for all of five days; he has been in goal for three games and carries a 3-0 record.
Beginner's luck? Maybe, but it doesn't seem likely when "The Rage In Cage" appears to be doing only what comes naturally. "Seems I always get off to a pretty good start [hot-hot-hot]. I started this way in the AHL," he understated hugely.
Oh yes, the AHL. Assigned to Portland after the Caps coaxed him out of the University of Wisconsin with a $325,000 signing bonus, the kid brother of the Orioles' hitting prospect, Paul Carey, was in goal for the Pirates' record-setting unbeaten streak at the beginning of a season: He won 13, tied three and lost none. It was like that when he was a Badger, too.
Before sending the previously streaking Rangers (3-0-1) into the night, Carey bested the game's finest, Patrick Roy, and the Montreal Canadiens, 5-1, Saturday night, and beat the New York Islanders on the road Thursday, 4-3.
"To beat two goaltenders like Roy and Mike Richter [also a Wisconsin alum] back-to-back is great," said Carey. But he acted as if it came as no big surprise to him, and not in a cocky way. "I just go out there and try to stay relaxed."
It works, not only for him but the whole team, according to Jim Schoenfeld. "He exudes confidence and composure," said the Washington coach. "He's a guy who makes the hard save look easy, and that gives everybody confidence. He knows when and how to clear the puck, when to freeze it, how to use his defense."
In other words, Carey seems to be the whole package. With the Caps playing horribly -- only three wins in their first 18 games -- some suggested that calling Carey from the minors smacked of "desperation."
That's about two time zones away from being accurate. No sooner did the front-office people sign him than they theorized among themselves that he was the future in goal. They would have liked to have seen him get a whole year in Triple-A ball, but his 55 games, 3,300 minutes, six shutouts and 30-14-11 record at Portland club suggests that he has, indeed, had a whole year of seasoning in the minors.
"I have played a lot," Carey says, "but I feel good. I don't feel tired at all. It's a big jump from college to the pros, going from playing two nights a week to four, then coming here where they shoot quicker and they're more accurate. But I kind of find you play to the level you're at."
If only that proves so, the Caps are praying to themselves. The next installment of the saga is right around the corner, Washington heading into the Boston Garden for a game against the Bruins tomorrow night.
Carey was born, oh, a couple of miles from the famous old heap atop the North Station. He grew up a couple more miles down on the south shore, played high school hockey in the city and no doubt knows every nook and cranny of the soon-to-be-demolished old girl.
"I've said many times that our goaltenders were playing well. We were leading the conference in goals-against average," said the coach. "We just weren't getting the big save when we needed it." And almost everything becomes a big save when your offense isn't doing any damage at the other end.
During the modest win streak, the Capitals have scored 13 goals. Before that, they had been blanked three times and scored just one goal on six occasions in half their games.
"That's strange," said Carey. "I think we have a lot of good two-way hockey players out there, and our defense generates good opportunities at the other end."
The problem, sweet bird of youth, is finishing off the chances with the puck in the net. Until that happens a little more consistently, Jim baby, keep making those big saves and thinking nothing of it.