One moment, Olie Kolzig was standing on the visiting bench at Amalie Arena watching the Washington Capitals celebrate clinching a berth in the Stanley Cup Final with a 4-0 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday.
The next, Kolzig was being pulled off the bench and corralled by Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin and goaltender Braden Holtby into a photo with the Prince of Wales Trophy.
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"For them to invite me into that picture was very special because that was a special moment," Kolzig said. "For those two to consider me part of that group makes you feel like you're a big part of it."
Kolzig, now the Capitals professional development coach and formerly their goalie coach, was in the middle of a similar celebration the last time they advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998 with a 3-2 overtime victory against the Buffalo Sabres in Game 6 of the conference final in Buffalo. That season, Kolzig was in Holtby's skates as Washington's No. 1 goaltender, going 12-9 with a 1.95 goals-against average, a .941 save percentage and four shutouts in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
He hopes to see the Capitals take the step the 1998 team couldn't by defeating the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final, which opens with Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
"With everything the organization has gone through the last few years and the disappointment and scar tissue that's been built up, you just felt happy for everybody involved," said Kolzig, who played for the Capitals from 1989- 2008, "especially guys I played with in Ovechkin and [center Nicklas] Backstrom and then worked with in Holtby and [goaltender Philipp] Grubauer.
"It was just fantastic, fantastic that we finally got over that hump and are able to compete for the Cup again."
Video: Discussing the Capitals' journey to the Cup Final
Kolzig, 48, lives in nearby St. Petersburg, Florida, so he was able to attend Game 7 in Tampa after having hip surgery three weeks ago. Peter Bondra, another member of the 1998 Capitals, was in Washington taking in the organization's breakthrough moment with delirious fans at a watch party at Capital One Arena.
"I think we had close to 10,000 people in attendance. And they screamed," said Bondra, a former forward. "It was fun. I cannot believe it's been 20 years. I felt a little bit of relief. I'm excited about the team that we have this year, and it's been a long wait for the fans and the city of Washington also."
Bondra, 50, played 14 seasons in Washington from 1990-2004 and ranks second in Capitals history with 472 goals and 825 points (behind Ovechkin's 607 goals and 1,122 points) Now the Capitals director of alumni affairs and business development, the Ukraine-born Slovak considers Washington his "home away from home."
Bondra knows well the suffering the city's fans have gone through since they last got to celebrate a major sports championship when the Redskins won the Super Bowl at the end of the 1991 NFL season. The Capitals are looking to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 43 NHL seasons.
"It's time to hoist a major trophy in D.C.," Bondra said. "I think the city is hungry. The city is waiting to celebrate something like this."
Bondra and Kolzig look back on their run to the 1998 Stanley Cup Final with fondness, but also a feeling of emptiness. They were swept in the Cup Final by the Detroit Red Wings, who won their second consecutive championship.
"That was the first time in my career I felt that Washington was a hockey town," said Bondra, who scored seven goals in the 1998 playoffs, tied for the Capitals lead with center Joe Juneau, defenseman Sergei Gonchar and forward Richard Zednik. "Everyone celebrated our success and the conversation in the city was the Capitals and whenever we'd win, the people would greet us or meet us. But that was it. We went to the Final and were disappointed with the results. But, hey, that was 20 years ago. That was a different story, a different team."
By coincidence, George McPhee, the Capitals general manager when they reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, is GM of the first-year Golden Knights. Dave Prior, who was Kolzig's goalie coach and mentor with the Capitals, is the Golden Knights goalie coach.
"It's been 20 years since all of us went to the Final," Kolzig said. "It's going to be bizarre. Dave is like a father figure to me. I always said if I can't win it, I'd love to see Dave win it. But now that we're one step closer, I might have to take that back. I want to win it."
Kolzig said it would mean "everything" to the city if the Capitals win. It also would have great meaning for Kolzig and Bondra, and not only because they work for the organization.
As former Capitals players, they are part of a fraternity that has been waiting a long time for this moment, too.
"We didn't get the job done and now I'm hoping for this year," Bondra said. "The Caps deserve that, and especially the fans. They've been waiting. There have been a lot of disappointments here year after year. So, that would be nice. I would be happy. I would be thrilled. Even though I'm not playing, I feel like everybody on the team."
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