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Mike Wise: Capitals' Playoff Success Hinges on José Theodore

The season that began with an opening-night loss was marked by a number of key turning points en route to a second straight division title.

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By Mike Wise
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Capitals have the talent to overcome bad goaltending in one seven-game series. They don't need José Theodore to be Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, where the Canucks go only as far as their captain in the net takes them. They don't even need Theodore to be Dominik Hasek in Buffalo a decade ago, when Hasek played contortionist for almost two solid months.

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But let's be clear: A Stanley Cup run in Washington happens only if Theodore becomes the consistent, focused goalie we haven't seen yet at Verizon Center this season. The guy who pulls off five 10-bell saves (that's what they call standing on your head in Canada, right?) yet somehow lets a dribbler slip through his legs; that guy? He's officially on the spot.

Three times a night, Theodore's reflexes and intuition appear as quick and strong as anyone in the NHL. Three times a night -- the same night -- he inexplicably lets the most pedestrian slap shots slide past. This evil-twin game has to end tonight in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round, because his teammates can't bail him out forever.

No offense to Mr. Hart Trophy and all of Alex Ovechkin's highly skilled teammates, but which José Theodore shows up against the New York Rangers is going to determine the fate of this franchise from here on out this year.

This postseason is very much about Theodore. It's about the next best thing General Manager George McPhee could find after Cristobal Huet left the Capitals at the altar for the Chicago Blackhawks' millions. Now that Huet is backing up Nikolai Khabibulin, management is almost off the hook.

The Capitals transitioned out an aging and too-proud Olie Kolzig, sore feelings and all, and found a suitable replacement in Huet at last season's trade deadline. Huet played out of his mind for a few months until he got rich. When he jilted Washington, McPhee scrambled and settled on Theodore, whose two-year contract essentially made him the bridge to Simeon Varlamov, the Russian wunderkind brought up from the AHL's Hershey Bears, who turns 21 this month.

If Theodore falters, don't be surprised when Varlamov sees playoff action. And if Varlamov shines, don't be surprised to see Theodore start next season as a $4.5 million backup. If he wants to avoid that fate, Theodore needs to give one of the most gifted offensive units in the game the support it needs for the next month or two.

Because it's not about astonishing saves and goals-against ratios as much as it is morale.

If you've ever seen the body language on the Capitals' bench when Theodore lets a hideous goal through in a tight game, it's incredibly telling. Seeing the looks on Ovechkin's and his teammates' mugs is everything. A bad goal scored against Theodore crushes the spirit of his teammates, who know how hard they busted their behinds to score and get back in the game and now realize they have to do it all over again.

Coach Bruce Boudreau knows his team can get into the second round with sub-standard goaltending -- Theodore has won four first-round series as a starter with teams that had half the talent of these Capitals -- especially against a Rangers team that is hardly an offensive juggernaut. But they won't make a genuine run at the Cup without Theodore being more solid than spectacular; Varlamov is too green. If Theodore wants to be more than a stopgap to the Capitals' future in the net, this is his moment to prove it.

Of all the concerns surrounding the Capitals' feasibility as a real contender -- maturity, toughness, the psychological wound from being one-and-done against the Philadelphia Flyers a year ago -- No. 1 is Theodore's inconsistency. It's why the Rangers have just one on-paper advantage heading into this series -- Henrik Lundqvist in goal.

Again, Theodore doesn't have to be what Arturs Irbe was to San Jose 15 years ago; that otherworldly goalie, making out-of-body experiences a reality on ice.

But more than even a hard-checking opponent or a stingy goalie across the ice, Theodore can stop Ovie and a hungry Capitals team from going as far as they want to this postseason. If they have real designs on Lord Stanley, it's up to the guy in goal. This postseason is on him.

No pressure, eh?


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