ARLINGTON, Va. – The Washington Capitals demonstrated three goaltenders do not fit in front of two nets.
Newly acquired Cristobal Huet presided at one end of the rink Thursday during his first practice with the team. Longtime face-of-the-franchise Olie Kolzig was at the other end.
As for reliable backup Brent Johnson? All he could do was watch from the bench.
“I think everybody realizes how weird it is in here right now,” Kolzig said.
That includes coach Bruce Boudreau, who referenced his nine-year-old son when discussing the goalie dilemma as the Capitals try to make the playoffs for the first time in five years.
“That’s the reason I didn’t want Brady playing on a team with two goalies at minor hockey – because you don’t play,” Boudreau said. “So three goalies, you just magnify that.”
Confusion still abounds from the surprise trade-deadline deal that brought Huet from the Montreal Canadiens. The only thing certain is Huet will start Friday’s game against the New Jersey Devils, Kolzig will be the backup, and Johnson won’t even make the trip.
“I’m still frustrated, of course,” said Johnson, who decided to stay behind to spend time with his visiting sister. “But I’m not going to let it get the best of me. Worse things could happen.”
Huet and Kolzig each said Kolzig would start Saturday’s home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the coach acted as if that was news to him.
“We take every day one day at a time,” Boudreau said. “If Huet’s unbelievable, then we’ll go with him Saturday.”
So there’s really no telling how the rest of the season will play out for a team that began Thursday five points away from a playoff berth. And beyond? There’s even less certainty. Kolzig, like Huet, is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, so the end could be near in Washington for the longtime veteran who has been with the Capitals through thick and thin.
“We’ve got 18 games left to get into the playoffs, and we’ll see what happens,” Kolzig said. “There’s things in life and in hockey that are out of your control. It’s how you deal with it that separates you from other people. I’m going to continue to do my work, and, as I said the other day, if it’s not good enough, then there’ll be somebody else here to do it.”
Kolzig has been the Capitals’ No. 1 goalie since 1997. He led the team to the Stanley Cup final in 1998 and won the Vezina Trophy in 2000. His numbers haven’t been as good in recent seasons because the team was rebuilding and struggling on all fronts.
But Kolzig also had some poor games early this season, leading to more playing time for Johnson. However, as Kolzig pointed out Thursday, he is 12-4-4 in his last 20 decisions. Hours after learning of the trade for Huet, Olie the Goalie made his case emphatically with 34 saves in Tuesday’s 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild.
“I still feel I can play at a high level,” said Kolzig, whose 298 NHL wins have all come with the Capitals. “And I’ll continue to believe that.”
Kolzig, who turns 38 next month, is 22-19-6 on the season with a 2.98 goals-against average and an .890 save percentage. Huet, who had been sharing time in Montreal with rookie Carey Price, is 21-12-6 with a 2.55 GAA and a .916 save percentage. Johnson’s numbers: 7-8-2, 2.67 and .908.
General manager George McPhee said the Capitals couldn’t pass up the opportunity when Huet became available. Huet cost Washington a 2009 second-round draft pick.
That said, it’s up to the coach to handle the netminder surplus.
“We traded for a No. 1 goalie from Montreal. Now we’ve got two No. 1 goalies,” Boudreau said. “And Brent has always been a tremendous support system and can play, and he’s going to do the same thing now.”
Johnson understands why he’s third banana, but he said he didn’t feel like part of the team when he couldn’t take part in the main part of practice Thursday. He got the bulk of his work in goal after most of his teammates had left the ice.
“I just feel like some guy coming in off the street, kind of,” Johnson said. “But if I was that other guy, I’d like to have my own net, too. That’s the best thing for those two if they’re playing because no one likes to share a net with another goalie.”
Boudreau said it was a nightmare dealing with three goalies during two seasons he coached in the minors in Manchester, N.H. Inevitably, one of the three has to pay a big price.
“It’s hard to keep all three sharp,” Boudreau said. “So we want to keep two sharp.”