WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals begin the Stanley Cup playoffs tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins, with perhaps the best goaltender in the league champing at the bit. This is Olie Kolzig's favorite time of the year.
Even before he was recognized as an NHL star, Kolzig always played like one in the playoffs. His career goals-against average is 1.94.
"It's hard to put into words," the 6-foot-3 goalie said. "But it's the nitty-gritty now. The season can come to an end any time."
The playoffs are here and with them come the Penguins, perhaps the one team most responsible for Washington's disappointing postseason record.
Because Pittsburgh has won four of the five playoff series with the Caps, loud protests were heard from the team's supporters when the schedule was announced for the No. 2-seeded Capitals. Due to scheduling conflicts at Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena, the Caps will play Game 1 here tonight, but then travel to Pittsburgh for Games 2 and 3 before coming home for three of the last four games.
The scheduling change seems especially hurtful to the Capitals, given they have the best home ice record in the league, 26-7-8, but no longer have the first two games at home. Still, the one place no one is complaining is inside the Capitals' locker room.
One reason, the Capitals also have the second-best record on the road over the past 3 1/2 months, 13-7-3, and have lost just 10 games either home or away since Dec. 29.
"I'll give Pittsburgh all seven games at their place and we'll still win," said Caps head coach Ron Wilson. And the Capitals appear to believe him, despite going 1-3 against Pittsburgh during the regular season.
"It doesn't matter where we play," said Chris Simon, the Caps' leading scorer. "The first game and the fourth game of a series are always the hardest for each team to win. We'll be back here for Games 4 and 5 and from my experience, they're usually very important games. We're going to make the best of it."
In the Penguins, the Caps find themselves facing an unusually difficult No. 7 seed. Led by points leader Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh is a skillful, fast and fluid team.
"We played them two weeks ago and they didn't have Jagr in the lineup and they showed us their skill level," said Kolzig. "We've got to be tougher on them, not allow them to enter our zone. We've got to clog the neutral zone and not allow them to gain speed. If our D plays well and our guys do well up front, we'll be fine."
When the Caps made their Stanley Cup run in 1998, they did it with primarily two offensive lines and four defensemen. Stop Peter Bondra, informed observers said, and you stop the Caps. Now, there are four solid scoring lines and six strong defensemen.
What that means for the Capitals is demonstrated clearly by the fact that Bondra, a two-time 50-plus goal scorer, is back from a shoulder injury and ready to play on the team's fourth line.
"We're playing for each other," said Kolzig. "The key is not to let little things bother us, and there will be some little things. But whether we lose a game or not, we've just got to suck it up. These are the Stanley Cup playoffs. This is what we've all been playing for."