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Two Capitals Goalies Battle for the No. 1 Spot

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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

With a string of strong starts this month, Brent Johnson had put himself in position to do something neither of the Washington Capitals' goaltenders has managed to accomplish: seize the No. 1 job.

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Then Johnson was pulled in Philadelphia on Saturday after yielding two questionable goals. At the end of 40 minutes, the Capitals were out-shooting the Flyers, 39-13, yet they trailed 3-0. In an effort to turn things around, Coach Bruce Boudreau inserted José Theodore for the third period, but he fared no better.

While it's expected that goalies will have poor performances over the course of an 82-game regular season, Washington's 7-1 debacle at the hands of the Flyers on Saturday shined a spotlight on the biggest concern for a Capitals team that has designs on contending for the Stanley Cup -- the goaltending. Heading into last night's NHL action, the Capitals were ranked seventh in the league in goals scored, but 21st in goals allowed.

Boudreau stopped short of saying there's a goalie controversy, but something is percolating between the pipes in Washington. Johnson and Theodore have appeared in 17 and 18 games, respectively, and both are looking over their shoulders at prospect Simeon Varlamov, who earned wins in both of his starts this month after being called up from the team's minor league affiliate in Hershey, Pa.

"We're waiting for one to come up and say, 'Hey listen, I'm the guy, go to me all the time,' " Boudreau said, referring to Johnson and Theodore.

It appears Boudreau is set to give Johnson that chance. He is expected to make his second straight start -- and seventh in the past 10 games -- at Madison Square Garden tonight, where Washington's goaltending issues will be magnified by the Capitals' opponent's stability at the position. The New York Rangers, another team with high hopes, are expected to start Henrik Lundqvist, a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist whose 18 victories are equal to Johnson and Theodore's combined total.

Johnson started the season as Theodore's backup after General Manager George McPhee signed Theodore to a two-year, $9 million free agent contract in July. But Johnson has out-performed his pricier counterpart. Theodore has a record of 8-6-1 record with a 3.26 goals against average and an .883 save percentage, which rank 40th and 43rd, respectively. He has allowed 11 goals on 61 shots since shutting out Montreal on Nov. 28.

Johnson's stat line is much more palatable: a 10-5-2 record with a 2.55 goals against average and a .916 save percentage.

Boudreau, however, wants to see more.

"I don't know yet," Boudreau said, asked if Johnson can be the Capitals' No. 1. "It's too early. Only time will tell whether he a) deserves it or b) can do it."

Johnson has been a starter in the past, and at 31 years old, this might be his final chance to show he can handle the responsibility and pressure of the job. He was the St. Louis Blues' No. 1 goalie in 2001-02, winning a career-high 34 games. But since that season, he has only played in more than 30 games in a season once, and in each of the past two seasons, when his playing time increased, so did his susceptibility to injuries. This season, he's been battling a sore hip.

"Durability has always been an issue," Boudreau said. "The mental makeup? I feel he wants that position."


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