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Washington Capitals vs. Florida Panthers @NHL
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GAME: Washington Capitals (3-4-0) at Florida Panthers (4-4-0).

TIME: Thursday, 7 p.m. EDT.

Washington goaltender Olaf Kolzig's numbers aren't much to look at, but his play thus far this season is one of the main reasons the young Capitals are off to a decent start.

The veteran netminder will look to continue leading by example when the Capitals visit the Florida Panthers.

Kolzig has faced 35.5 shots per game this season, going 3-3 with a 4.26 goals-against average.

"He's been unbelievable," teammate Chris Clark said of Kolzig. "Olie has been the No. 1 reason behind every win we have this year. And you can't blame him for the losses, because if we're letting in more than 30 shots a game, which we have been, it's terrible on him."

The Capitals were outshot 40-14 by Tampa Bay on Sunday, but Kolzig made 38 saves to lift Washington to a 3-2 victory.

"Ideally, 20-25 shots would be a nice number to face in a game," Kolzig said. "But look at the situation: We're a young team, we're a little inexperienced in the back end and we're still adjusting to the new rules. So we're going to give up some shots."

The 35-year-old Kolzig has absorbed plenty of shots, most of which have had nothing to do with flying pucks. If fending off slap shots was his only concern, the former Vezina Trophy winner and two-time All-Star would have no complaints.

The league's crackdown on obstruction means defensemen can no longer use their sticks or hands to slow down opposing forwards, and several of those attackers have found their way into the crease, taking Kolzig down in the process.

"My biggest issue is the guys crashing the net now," Kolzig said. "It just seems like there's no holds barred, driving the net and then, whoops, accidentally falling into you. It's tough enough to stop the puck while having guys fall on you at the same time."

Making matters worse, the Capitals have been forced to play short-handed a whopping 62 times - easily the league high - and might be winless were it not for Kolzig's prowess in the net.

"The shots on goal are a concern for the coaching staff and the whole team, not just Olie," coach Glen Hanlon said. "It's kind of hard to avoid those type of things unless you cut your penalties down. But we're fortunate. We think he's the best goalie in the league."

The Panthers have lost two straight, including a 4-0 defeat to the New York Rangers on Monday.

Florida has allowed six power-play goals in its last two games, including three to New York.

"You hope to get a few more power plays," Panthers coach Jacques Martin said. "That's something we don't control. We have to be better as far as staying out of the box."

After starting the season with back-to-back shutouts, Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo has allowed eight goals in his last two games.

"We're short-handed all the time. We've got to cut back on the penalties, give (Luongo) a break for once," said winger Nathan Horton, who scored his third goal in four games Monday. "It's hard to get the puck to the net when you're just trying to defend your own net."

STANDINGS: Capitals - 6 points, 4th place (tied), 2 PB, Southeast Division. Panthers - 8 points, 1st place (tied), Southeast Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Capitals - Alexander Ovechkin, 4 goals and 8 points; Ovechkin, Dainius Zubrus, Steve Eminger and Jeff Halpern, 4 assists; Brendan Witt, 23 PIM. Panthers - Horton, 4 goals; Mike Van Ryn, 5 assists; Horton, Olli Jokinen and Mike Van Ryn, 5 points; Branislav Mezei, 27 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS (through Oct. 17): Capitals - Power play: 15.0 percent (6 for 40), 18th in the NHL. Penalty killing: 77.4 percent (48 for 62), 25th. Panthers - Power play: 8.7 percent (4 for 46), 29th in NHL. Penalty killing: 89.2 percent (33 for 37), 7th.

GOALTENDERS: Capitals - Kolzig (3-3-0, 0 SO, 4.26 GAA); Brent Johnson (0-1-0, 0, 5.07). Panthers - Luongo (4-4-0, 2, 2.27); Jamie McLennan (0-0-0, 0, 1.13).

2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Panthers, 3-1-2.

LAST MEETING: March 2, 2004; Panthers, 1-0. At Washington, Luongo stopped 29 shots for his team-record seventh shutout of the season.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Capitals - 0-2-0 on the road; Panthers - 3-1-0 at home.

Associated Press
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