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 Ran-ford suffered a groin injury in the 1997-98 season opener. Ran-ford 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.