Washington goalie Craig Billington will arrive three hours early for tonight's NHL game, as he has for the last 15 years. The fact that he is the starting goalie for the Southeast Division champion Capitals in their opener won't change a thing.
"I've been a starter and a backup," Billington said. "I've split games. I've been an All-Star. I've been bought out of a contract. And I've had no job at all. It's better than having been an All-Star every year of my career. There have been so many situations in my life, and I've learned from all of them. If I had been nothing but an All-Star, what would I have learned?
"I'm just happy to be in the National Hockey League, and, to me, being the starter for the next few games is just part of my role."
His role is to back up Olie Kolzig, who earned the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender in the league last season. But because Kolzig needed a little maintenance work on his right knee, in the form of arthroscopic surgery, Billington is in the position of being the Capitals' last line of defense.
He will be the No. 1 goalie tonight at MCI Center against the Los Angeles Kings and for the next few weeks, until Kolzig is ready to return.
"Biller will do fine," said Caps forward Peter Bondra. "Look at last year. Every time he played for us, he did well, and it'll be good this time. No one should be worried about our goaltending."
The Caps have other concerns.
Their leading scorer from last season, left wing Chris Simon (team-high 29 goals), remains unsigned.
Their top offensive defenseman, Sergei Gonchar (54 points), signed just four days ago, attended his first practice yesterday and is not expected to be ready to play tonight.
Bondra, coming off a disappointing season, with 38 points in 62 games, is still on the trading block.
And the rest of the Southeast Division has noticeably strengthened itself, while the Capitals have been content to stand relatively pat. There are two rookie faces, left wing Kris Beech, 19, and defenseman Jakub Cutta. And two familiar faces return - left wing Craig Berube, who spent last season with the Philadelphia Flyers, and defenseman Sylvain Cote, who finished last season with the Dallas Stars.
"We'll do the best we can with the team we have," said Capitals coach Ron Wilson. "We have opportunities galore for guys to get [playing] time."
Bondra is in the last year of his contract and said this week, "I have some things to prove" this season. How well he performs, along with left wings Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis, will be key to the offensive attack.
A season ago, the Caps proved their ability to be competitive at five-on-five hockey, a strength that helped carry the team to within three points of earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference. But Wilson points to last season's power-play performance (21st in the league with a 15 percent success rate) as an obvious spot for improved performance.
"Zed [Zednik] has stepped it up there, and I expect our veterans will shift into a higher gear in the regular season," he said, with hope in his voice.
As for his goaltending, Wilson expresses no doubts.
"Craig is an NHL goalie," said Wilson. "He's ready. He's prepared. He's confident. And he can do the job."
Kolzig notes the differences between his build - 6 feet 3, long and lean - and Billington's more compact 5-9 form.
"He can't go down in a butterfly as much as I do, because he'd leave too much open space for the puck above him," Kolzig said. "But his quickness across the front of the net is much faster than mine, and that's his strength.
"We have different styles, but our philosophies are the same - try to fill the net, don't react acrobatically and hope they make a mistake."
Billington, 34, has been the perfect teammate for Kolzig. They both have an appreciation of the sport's history. Billington, for instance, says if there was just one hockey question he could have asked and had answered it would be: How did Glenn Hall ever play 502 consecutive games with no mask?
Last season Billington acted as Kolzig's confidant, was ready to play whenever needed and never complained.
In 13 games, Billington compiled a 2.75 goals-against-average and put together the longest shutout run in his career, 138 minutes, 47 seconds of scoreless hockey to post back-to-back shutouts against the Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators.
He signed a new three-year contract in June, and, unlike some goalies, he is not looking at this starting time as an opportunity to boot Kolzig aside or as a chance to attract attention from elsewhere to get back to being a No. 1 goalie.
"I think a lot of guys who have thought like that are no longer in the NHL," Billington said. "They haven't succeeded, because they were more concerned with where they'd like to be instead of living in the now and taking care of their business.