Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig. (CPimages/ AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Surprised? Don't be, says Olaf Kolzig. "We're a legitimate hockey team," the veteran goalie told The Canadian Press on Thursday. "We go into games now expecting to win, which is a lot different than last year when we went into games saying, 'Let's just try our best and see what happens.' I love the attitude change.
"And since last week our goals are elevated even more now. We're looking at climbing the conference standings."
An upset win over Western Conference-leading Anaheim at home on Friday night would hand the Caps five straight wins for the first time in five years. They're coming off victories over red-hot Ottawa and Eastern Conference-leading Buffalo, so anything is possible.
"For us to do that tomorrow night I think would really put an exclamation point on our team and where we're at," said Kolzig. "But then again, if we do lose that game, I hope in people's minds they don't think, 'Well, their bubble has finally burst.' We're for real."
A 12-9-6 record through 27 games is not what the vast majority of prognosticators had in mind before the season started (CP had them finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference this season).
"We talked about it during training camp, we were baffled a little bit by everybody's predictions," Kolzig said.
Why? Because the Caps had a decent second half last season and felt that would carry into this year.
"From the Olympic break on we were over .500," said the 36-year-old Kolzig. "We were competitive every game, we beat teams that were in playoff contention. And so we really felt good about going into this season and felt good about our chances. So when people were writing us off again, it put a little bit of a chip on everybody's shoulder.
"We said, 'All right, let's go out there and prove everybody wrong. We are a good hockey team. We do have a shot at making the playoffs this year."'
There's no secret to what's getting it done. This is a lunch-bucket club whose work ethic is as high as any in the NHL.
"There's no question, that's our trademark," said Kolzig. "Obviously we have a guy like Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin who provide all the talent and all the offence. But at the same time, Ovie is one of the hardest-working superstars in the league. He gets credit for all of his fancy moves and the way he can just dipsy-doodle around guys, but he's one of the first guys in on the forecheck, he hits. When you see your superstar doing that, it has an effect on everybody else.
"And we are a blue-collar hockey team. As long as we keep that identity, I think we'll be fine."
Kolzig, as usual, is providing the rock-solid goaltending that gives his team a chance every night, his .917 save percentage 10th-best in the NHL.
This season's team success has validated the decision Kolzig had to make last year. A pending unrestricted free agent, he had to decide between getting dealt to a contender or signing a contract extension with the rebuilding Caps.
Last Feb. 11, on the eve of the Olympic break, his decision was crystal clear, signing a US$10.9-million, two-year contract extension through the 2007-08 season.
"I didn't have any regrets when I made that decision and I definitely don't have any now," Kolzig said.
He has spent his entire 14-year NHL career with Washington, no small factor in his decision.
"I thought to myself that getting traded increases your chances of winning the Cup short-term but doesn't guarantee it," said Kolzig. "I've built up a bit of a stature here with this organization. When you get traded, you lose that. ...
"I thought, you know what? What better story than a guy who starts and finishes his career with one team and ends up winning the Stanley Cup here. I thought that would be the ultimate thing to try and do."