Last Friday night the Capitals were outplayed again. Nevertheless
they were victorious again. That win, 3-0 over the Senators,
vaulted Washington into the Eastern Conference finals. The Caps,
who have been outshot by an average of 37-23 in their 11
postseason games, seemingly have adopted the philosophy, Let 'em
shoot, we know Olie's back there. Goalie Olaf Kolzig has a
scoreless streak of 149:06 and a league-best .951 save
percentage in the postseason. "If it wasn't for him, we'd be
golfing right now," says defenseman Brendan Witt.
Kolzig is stopping pucks so deftly that he seems entranced.
Shortly after making a mitt save on Ottawa's Alexei Yashin in
the Capitals' 2-0 win in Game 4, Kolzig asked reporters, "Did
that slide under me, or did I get that with my glove?"
The 28-year-old Kolzig, a native of Johannesburg, South Africa,
who was raised in Canada, was Washington's first-round draft
choice in 1989, but he didn't get his chance to start regularly
until No. 1 netminder Bill Ranford suffered a groin injury in
the 1997-98 season opener. Ranford was supposed to be sidelined
for 10 days, but Kolzig's play--he finished the regular season
33-18-10 with a 2.20 goals-against average and a .920 save
percentage--relegated Ranford to the backup role.
Part of the reason Kolzig, who is 6'3", 225 pounds and nicknamed
Godzilla, is only blossoming at a relatively advanced age is his
temper. He was labeled Snap-Olie in the minors because he
sometimes smashed his stick on the crossbar after surrendering a
goal--in practice. One of his most compelling characteristics
remains his aggressiveness. Selected to the All-Star Game in
January, Kolzig appeared in the breakaway skills competition and
betrayed no awe of his surroundings by racing from the pipes to
intercept oncoming snipers. "I've calmed down a lot," says
Kolzig, "but I play with confidence."
The way he played against Ottawa left some Senators calling him
the pretender to the NHL's goaltending throne. Says Ottawa
goalie Ron Tugnutt of Kolzig's impending showdown with Sabres'
all-world backstop Dominik Hasek, "I think every game is going
to be 0-0."
BUFFALO'S CAPTAIN CRUNCH
Shortly after the Sabres completed their second-round sweep of
the Canadiens with a 3-1 win in Montreal last Thursday, Hasek
stood outside the Buffalo locker room clad in sandals and a
black-and-white prizefighter's robe addressing a swarm of
reporters. Hasek presented a fine sight for his teammates, who
milled around chuckling and clinking bottles of beer as they
waited to head for the team bus, but they were even happier to
see their captain, center Michael Peca, striding about in a gray
suit. Peca was showing no ill effects from the twisted left knee
that had kept him out of the third period of Game 4, and he was
telling everyone that he would be ready to play with his
customary passion against the Capitals in the Eastern Conference
finals, which will begin on Saturday. "Good, because we really
need him," said defenseman Jason Woolley. "Guys feed off him."
While Buffalo's season has been defined by Hasek's dominance, it
has also been marked by the emergence of Peca as the leader of
Buffalo's unmasked men. Peca, a ferocious checker who last
season won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward
and who is a finalist for that honor again this year, can shut
down the most intimidating scorers in the league. He has also
proved himself to be a clutch offensive player. The Sabres are
7-0 in the playoffs with Peca in the lineup. (He missed two
first-round games against the Flyers with a strain of that same
left knee.) During the regular season, in which Buffalo finished
36-29-17, it went 6-9-6 without him.
Peca missed 11 games at the start of the season because of a
contract dispute (and 10 matches with assorted minor injuries),
yet even then the Sabres' players and management were touting
him for their captaincy to replace Pat LaFontaine, who had been
traded to the Rangers in the off-season. Soft-spoken and
even-keeled, the 24-year-old Peca commands respect because,
despite being 5'11", 180 pounds and having forearms scarcely
thicker than the shaft of a stick, he regularly hurtles himself
at far bigger men. "When a guy his size puts big hits on people,
other guys want to follow," says Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff.
Instead of laboring under the responsibility of being a team
captain, as many young players have done, Peca has thrived. In a
game against the Penguins on March 15, he was shadowing Jaromir
Jagr in the second period of a scoreless tie when Jagr, who had
been shackled by Peca in a 2-1 Pittsburgh victory the day
before, started snarling. "He said I was the worst captain and
we were never going to win anything as long as I was captain,"
Peca recalls. "I went back to the bench and thought, He's wrong.
I am going to be a great leader, and we are going to win." In
the third period Peca had two goals and an assist, and the
Sabres won 3-0. "I think that showed the guys they can count on
me," he says.
After throttling Philadelphia's 6'4" 235-pound Eric Lindros
during the opening playoff round, Peca helped limit the
Canadiens' shifty center Saku Koivu to a goal and an assist in
the second round. During Game 3 in Montreal, Peca scored the
first two goals of his playoff career, including the winner in
double overtime. "He's not the rah-rah type, but he sets the
tone for us," says enforcer Rob Ray. "He's a guy you could see
being a captain here for a long time."
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA MONSTER SPRING Kolzig has been a playoff beast, with a .951 save percentage. [Olaf Kolzig in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL WIPPERT MOVING ON Peca and Co. KO'd Montreal. [Mike Peca and opponent in game]
THIS DATE IN PLAYOFF HISTORY
May 25, 1994,
RANGERS vs. DEVILS
New York trailed New Jersey three games to two in the Eastern
Conference finals, with Game 6 the next day at the Meadowlands,
but Rangers captain Mark Messier declared of that match, "We
will win it." Then he backed up those words with deeds. After
New York trailed 2-0, Messier assisted on a goal in the second
period and scored a hat trick in the third to lead the Rangers
to a 4-2 victory. New York went on to win that series and the
Stanley Cup, its first championship in 54 years. Said Rangers
coach Mike Keenan of Messier's guarantee, "It was the most
remarkable pressure performance in the history of our sport."