When Jim Carey showed up at the University of Wisconsin, goaltending coach Bill Howard saw an 18-year-old with a lot of athletic ability, a lot of confidence, but not much knowledge of the position he was playing.
"He'd played well at every level he'd been before coming to us," said Howard. "But, typical of the 18-year-old goaltender, he hadn't had much instruction. He would go down and flop around a lot. He wasn't in control of the puck, and that's not the kind of goaltending I teach.
"I believe in balance points, weight transfer. I want my goalie to stay up, control the puck and be poised and confident. Jimmy had the physical ability to make the adjustment."
Yesterday, Carey said Howard gave him the instruction he needed to get where he is now. Where he is is a pretty heady place -- at the top of the NHL in goals-against average (1.33) and save percentage (.944).
In three weeks as the starting goalie for the Washington Capitals, the 20-year-old has led the team's turnaround from a down-and-nearly-out 3-10-5 disappointment to a 12-11-6 challenger.
Over the 11 games Carey has played, the Caps have risen from 13th in the Eastern Conference into a tie for fourth. Carey's controlled, calm work in the net has been the catalyst.
Not bad for the kid who was supposed to be a junior at Wisconsin this season but left behind a void at his old university.
"Everyone wanted what was best for him, but at the time -- it was so late -- we didn't have time to recruit for the position," Howard said. "But no one had any personal bad thoughts about Jimmy. It was more power to him. We just weren't sure we had a goalie who could play every game."
As it turns out, they did. Carey's backup, sophomore Kirk Daubensteck, stepped up, and Wisconsin is now preparing for an NCAA quarterfinal game against Michigan State.
"I can't say enough about what Bill Howard did for me," said Carey. "I went there an 18-year-old kid and two years later he had made me a 20-year-old man. The difference was night and day. He knows the game. He's been coaching goaltenders for 22 years and he has a traditional way he wants the game played."
"He has all the attributes Mike and Curtis have," said Howard. "But he also has something they don't -- size. He's a big kid [6 feet 2, 190 pounds].
"But I have to laugh when I think back to his freshman year. There was more than one time when he came off the ice, threw his stick and told me that it was physically impossible to make the save the way I wanted him to. But by his sophomore season he was making those saves."
He continues to make them. Carey is tied for second in the league with three shutouts -- in 11 NHL games, including back-to-back numbers against Hartford (5-0) and Ottawa (1-0) this week.
Now come the Philadelphia Flyers, Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at USAir Arena, and Carey can't wait.
"It's good for us to get a test like this," he said, when asked about facing the likes of Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg. "It's good to measure how far we've come and how far we've yet to go."