The Improbable 300
As I was driving home from Wednesday’s thrilling win over the Calgary Flames, I got to thinking about Olie Kolzig’s achievement of 300 wins. He’s the 23rd goaltender to reach that plateau, the second since the lockout ended and the sixth since 2001. I’ve been covering the Caps on a day-in, day-out basis since 1995-96 and I began wondering how many of Kolzig’s wins I’ve been around for.
I wasn’t thinking in terms of how many of Kolzig’s wins I’ve actually witnessed (I didn’t travel nearly as much in the early years), but rather how many he had when I started.
The answer stunned me a bit.
Kolzig has been quoted many times saying that his goal when he was drafted was to play in one NHL game. That much happened within months of him being drafted, but that first win took the better part of six years to achieve.
With all the success and accolades that have (deservedly) come Kolzig’s way over the years, it’s hard to remember sometimes all the trials and tribulations he endured in those early years.
More than seven years ago, I wrote a lengthy feature article on Kolzig, and put it thusly:
Kolzig’s path to NHL stardom was fraught with potholes, speed bumps, traffic jams and all sorts of other obstacles. That he persevered until he established himself as a bona fide NHL goaltender is a credit to Kolzig himself. That he remained in Washington long enough to do so is the result of some incredibly good fortune for the Capitals and some achingly bad decision-making by some other clubs. Call it fate, if you like.
Drafted 19th overall in 1989, Kolzig made the Caps’ roster as a 19-year-old in the fall of that year, but was returned to his Tri-City junior team in the WHL after appearing in two games (and giving up a dozen goals). The Caps’ other goalies that year: Mike Liut, Don Beaupre, Bob Mason and Jim Hrivnak.
Kolzig turned pro in 1990-91, splitting the season between Baltimore of the AHL and Hampton Roads of the ECHL. He spent the 1991-92 season exclusively with Baltimore.
Faced with a glut of goalies in 1992-93, the Caps loaned Kolzig to Rochester of the AHL, a Buffalo affiliate. He did get into one more game with the Caps that season, giving up two goals on seven shots in 20 minutes of work. Kolzig helped lead Rochester to the Calder Cup finals in 1993.
The next two seasons were split between Portland of the AHL and Washington, with Kolzig going 2-11-2 at the NHL level. He won a Calder Cup championship with the Portland Pirates in 1994, and was named the league’s playoff MVP.
That elusive first win came on Jan. 27, 1995 in the team’s home opener of the lockout-delayed and shortened 1994-95 season. The second one came more than three months later, weeks after Kolzig’s 25th birthday. He wasn’t exactly on a 300-win track in those days.
When I came on the scene, Kolzig had a 2-13-2 career record in the league, a 3.53 goals against average, and an .873 save pct. He was 25 years old, had been in the organization for six years and was backing up Jim Carey, a Calder Trophy runner-up who was four years younger.
If you were going to bet on one of those two goalies winning his 300th NHL game some 13 years down the road, the smart money would have been on Carey.
It’s a good thing there were no internet message boards in those days, or Kolzig likely would have been run out of town long ago. Can you imagine fans having patience with a 25-year-old guy who’d recorded two wins in his six years in the organization?
The Caps didn’t let Kolzig go to the Sabres, a scenario Kolzig thought was going to play out after he was loaned to Rochester. When Bruins GM Harry Sinden was offered a choice of Kolzig or Carey in a Mar. 1997 trade, he chose Carey. Even then, the Caps got veteran goaltender Bill Ranford back in the deal. Kolzig was 27 years old at the time. He was backing up a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and he carried a 14-36-8 record into the 1997-98 season.
Of such starts, 300-win careers are not made.
With Kolzig, it has been more about the finish than the start. A point shot to the midsection on opening night of the 1997-98 season changed everything. Kolzig relieved Ranford, and he played Lou Gehrig to Ranford’s Wally Pipp. The wins began coming in bunches.
Kolzig claimed his 50th NHL win on Oct. 23, 1998 against Buffalo, picking up his ninth career shutout in the process. His 100th win came against Florida on Feb. 23, 2000. His 150th win was also against Florida, on April 5, 2001, also his 21st shutout. Win No. 200 came against Carolina on Jan. 22, 2003. Kolzig’s 250th win was against the Islanders on Mar. 6, 2006, in the last game his good friend Brendan Witt played in a Caps sweater.
Kolzig could have left town before Witt did, but he elected to stay. He has been with the Washington organization for half his life and more than half of the lifespan of the Capitals’ franchise.
When I look back on it now, it seems so wildly improbable. But it happened. And I consider myself very fortunate to have been along for the ride, a ride that I don’t think is over yet.
Kolzig was asked about reflecting on all his achievements in the game, the international play, the milestones, the trophies, awards and accolades.
“Ultimately, you want to win the big one,” he said, a day after earning win No. 300. “I feel that we’re close. Our biggest challenge is going to be making the playoffs. I think if we get in, we’ve had success against every team that we could face in the first round. I think teams are worried if we do get in about how dangerous we can be. But the problem is we have to get in, and right now we don’t control our own destiny. We have to play as good as we can down the stretch.
“I haven’t sat there and thought about everything I’ve accomplished because there’s one thing that’s eluding me and obviously it’s the Cup.”
There is no shortage of folks who would love to see Kolzig accomplish that one thing that’s eluding him. In the meantime, they’re all happy he reached 300 and some of them are happy he did it in D.C. and that he’s still here, too.
He’ll aim for No. 301 Friday when the Thrashers come to town.