WASHINGTON — Funny the way things creep up on you.
Goaltender Olaf Kolzig said he knew in July, when he signed with the Lightning, that he could face his former team, the Capitals, tonight at the Verizon Center.
But November seemed so far away.
"Now, all of a sudden, it's here," Kolzig said. "The last few days I've been really thinking about it. There's going to be some anxiousness, some nervousness, probably more nervousness than I felt in a long time, maybe even more nervous than my first game in Tampa. It's going to be weird."
This isn't just another player returning to former stomping grounds. Kolzig, 38, played 16 seasons with Washington after it drafted him 19th overall in 1989.
He won 301 regular-season games, was awarded the 2000 Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie and in 1998 led the Capitals to the Stanley Cup final with a 1.95 goals-against average in 21 playoff games, a .941 save percentage and four shutouts, which tied a then-postseason record.
The divorce was messy. Washington's February deadline deal for Cristobal Huet ultimately made Kolzig a backup, and Kolzig decided after the season to leave the club, in part because of what he perceived as a lack of communication with general manager George McPhee.
"I still wish it didn't end the way it did," Kolzig said. "Having said that, I hold no hard feelings or grudges. … Obviously, going out there (today), I want to beat them as bad as anybody, but there's no malicious feelings or anything like that."
Kolzig said leaving was not about Huet. "For me, it was like, well, okay, so, they made this decision. I'm going to try to battle and, if I'm not in there, just support. The relationship I had with George, I thought, was pretty close … but there was really no communication for eight weeks after the trade deadline."
Kolzig said that McPhee "did try to reach out to me," the day after a Game 7 loss in the East quarterfinal. "But I thought … there was plenty of time in those eight weeks before the season ended to talk, and it never happened, so I just kind of moved on."
Said McPhee: "When you're in the throws of a playoff drive, there's not a lot to communicate."
He also said he and Kolzig spoke 10 days after the trade deadline. "And there were no issues raised. If I knew something was simmering, I would have talked to him."
Kolzig said he considered retiring but signed with Tampa Bay because "I still have a lot to give this game. It's not about proving Washington wrong. It's proving to myself, and proving to a lot of people, I can still play this game at a high level."
He has so far, going 1-1-1 with a 2.67 goals-against average and .925 save percentage in three games as Mike Smith's backup.
Kolzig said he wants to play more but can't argue with Smith's .934 save percentage (third in the league entering Sunday) and 2.33 goals-against average.
"He's been fantastic," Kolzig said.
And Smith said Kolzig has been "great, a great guy off the ice and a great goaltender for a long time. Obviously, a guy you can look up to and learn from."
How will Capitals fans receive Kolzig?
Kolzig said he expects "pretty well" but added, "They always say expect the unexpected."
"People in Washington love Olie," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau told Washington reporters. "I hope … (the fans) give him the applause I think he deserves and the recognition he deserves."