Capitals Goalie Olaf Kolzig knows what the skeptics say: Washington's appearance in the '98 Stanley Cup finals was a once-in-a-lifetime event...and the Caps' run wouldn't have happened if New Jersey, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh hadn't each been upset...and there's no guarantee that Kolzig, a career second-stringer before '97-98, can play the way he did last spring, when he outdueled Buffalo's Dominik Hasek in the conference finals, matched an NHL record with four playoff shutouts and finished the postseason with a 1.95 goals-against average.
After all, this is the franchise that saw Jim Carey win the Vezina Trophy in 1996, only to stumble badly the next season, provoking the Capitals to give up on him. Even in their hometown the Caps spent most of the '90s living down the "choking dogs" label a couple of local columnists hung on them because of a history of spectacular playoff collapses. The goal, then, is to prove that Washington's advance to the Cup finals and its loss to the Red Wings (the Caps were swept, but three of the four games were decided by a goal) was a breakthrough, not a fluke.
"We consider ourselves among the elite," says Kolzig, whose 33 wins in '97-98 tied him for third-best among goalies. "The expectations are obviously a lot higher than they were at this time last year."
The team's strengths, in addition to Kolzig, are sniper Peter Bondra (52 goals) and the defense, anchored by Mark Tinordi, Calle Johansson, Joe Reekie and Brendan Witt. But the team's only major off-season addition was defenseman Dimitri Mironov, and the roster is stocked with over-30 players—Adam Oates, Brian Bellows and Dale Hunter, to name three—who the Caps must hope will continue to play well enough to be called "experienced" as opposed to "old." For Washington to significantly improve, one or both of its young wingers, Yogi Svejkovsky or Richard Zednik, has to excel. Coach Ron Wilson is optimistic. "We know what we did last year," he says, "and we know we can get back."