By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
National Hockey League history is filled with tales of goaltenders who got hot in the playoffs and carried their teams to a Stanley Cup championship.
The biggest question facing the Washington Capitals as they prepare to open the Eastern Conference first round against the New York Rangers is whether José Theodore can catch fire after an uneven regular season in which he temporarily lost his starting job.
Playing behind the league's third-best offense but an inexperienced team that's prone to exposing its goaltender to prime scoring chances, Theodore won 32 games this season, second only to his 33 victories with the Montreal Canadiens in 2003-04. In every other category by which goaltenders are judged, however, the 32-year-old's statistics were unimpressive despite a second-half rebound.
Theodore finished the regular season with a 2.87 goals against average and .900 save percentage, which ranked 36th and 40th in the league, respectively. The other seven Eastern Conference playoff starters all rank higher, including Theodore's New York counterpart, Henrik Lundqvist, a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist who posted a 2.43 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. Lundqvist also won a career-high 38 games.
Part of the reason for Theodore's disappointing regular season numbers was his rough start with a new team. He was pulled in the season opener after yielding four goals on 17 shots. Then, following a 5-0 loss in Buffalo on Nov. 1, Coach Bruce Boudreau made Brent Johnson the starter. But that adversity sparked a turnaround during which Theodore regained his starting job and his confidence, went 24-11-4 in his final 39 starts and helped the Capitals clinch a second straight Southeast Division title.
"I really believe, looking back, it was a combination of getting used to a new system and expecting to think I was going to play all of the games and get into a rhythm, which didn't happen," said Theodore, who is 4-0 in first-round series as a starter but has never advanced past the second. "I don't think my first 20 games [this season] were as bad as my numbers showed. I just think I wasn't consistent. I thought I was letting in a bad goal here and there, but as soon as I found that consistency and started playing every game, I knew it would turn around."
From Nov. 1 to Dec. 23, Theodore started only 10 games because of Johnson's increased role and a hip-flexor injury. During his time off, Theodore worked diligently with goaltending coach Dave Prior.
The two focused mostly on the mental aspect of Theodore's game. Prior felt the goalie's mind too often raced ahead to "what if?" scenarios, and he was often caught worrying about the second shot before stopping the first one. That often resulted in Theodore being out of position if he anticipated incorrectly or allowing a shot he might have stopped to squeeze past. Theodore also acknowledged that part of his struggles were caused by trying too hard to make an impression on his new team after signing a two-year, $9 million free agent contract in the summer.
"When Johnnie started those five games, it was a good thing," Theodore said. "That was really when I was able to get my edge back."
He added: "When you get on a new team, you want to do so much. I was trying to do too much."
All of the practice paid off -- but not immediately.
Before things got better, they got worse. In Theodore's first action after coming off injured reserve, he relieved Johnson during a 7-1 loss in Philadelphia on Dec. 20 and promptly yielded four goals on 15 shots. Three days later, he melted down at Madison Square Garden, surrendering three goals on the first five shots he faced against the Rangers. Factoring in his cleanup duty against the Flyers, Theodore had yielded seven goals on 20 shots. Boudreau pulled Theodore and put in Johnson late in the first period. Then, at the start of the second period, Boudreau was forced to reinsert Theodore because Johnson was sick and injured.
"I couldn't believe that was happening," Theodore said. "I was a little bit like, 'What's going on?' But I kind of had a feeling I might go back in. When I went back in, I said, 'This is a new start.'
"From there, I never looked back."
Theodore stopped 19 of the next 20 shots and the Capitals rallied from a 4-0 deficit for a 5-4 overtime victory.
"When he's wanted to, and put his mind to it, he's been an outstanding goaltender," Boudreau said.
The come-from-behind win in New York was big for the Capitals and a season-defining moment for Theodore. Coming into that game, he had a 3.25 goals against average and a .883 save percentage. After it, he had a 2.70 goals against average and .907 save percentage.
Prior believes Theodore sometimes receives an inordinate amount of blame for losses and not enough credit for wins, especially considering the aggressive system Boudreau employs.
"People think he's carrying some baggage from the way he started the season," Prior said. "It's one of those things where it takes two minutes to build a reputation and a lifetime to get rid of it. He had to climb out of a hole, statistically. I'm not trying to defend the goalie. But sometimes we don't want to acknowledge what we are as a team. Sometimes when we break down, we give up good scoring chances. There are times when he makes really difficult saves look routine because of his quickness, agility and ability to read the shooter. I'm not sure everyone appreciates how he comes through."
Theodore, like his teammates, did not finish the regular season as he had wanted. He yielded six goals on 41 shots, including two in eight seconds and two of questionable quality, in Washington's 7-4 loss in Florida.
But Theodore said he's ready to bounce back -- once again.
"The last game, I kind of knew that no one wanted to get hurt out there and that it would be like a summer hockey league game," Theodore said. "It's over, and now it's another season that starts."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Tom Poti, who sat out the final three games of the regular season to rest a groin muscle strain that has dogged him all year, practiced yesterday but said he's not sure whether he'll suit up for Game 1. "We're taking it day by day and we'll reassess it" today, he said. "Right now, I'm not saying yes or no." Forwards Donald Brashear (sprained knee) and Boyd Gordon (broken finger) both practiced and are available to return from lengthy layoffs, according to Boudreau.