A Goalie On Thin Ice

By Mike Wise
Thursday, April 16, 2009

The loss was not an hour old, and already the groans had morphed into a movement for change.

Sometime after Alex Ovechkin skated toward the crease and poor José Theodore with 1 minute 32 seconds left in the second period, after the Capitals goalie slumped in dejection the moment he had let in his third goal (go ahead, call him José Threeormore), Everybody's Favorite Netminder to Pick On and, well, score on, became the least-admired hockey player in Washington. Theodore had somehow gone south of that little New York gnat, the annoying Tie Domi wannabe, Sean Avery.

When Theodore froze like a fawn on an interstate on the winning New York goal, with clumsy Jeff Schultz playing the part of a pylon and giving him no help, the goalie who was supposed to turn aside enough shots to let the Caps' offense take over was literally on thin ice, with Game 1 of this first-round series flying past him, glove side.

Not even Ovechkin giving the Rattled One encouragement, tapping the bottom of his skates with his sticks, amid the stunned quiet of a building in abject disbelief of a 3-1 deficit in Game 1, would help. He would give back the lead as the boos cascaded down from Verizon Center's rafters.

Losing 4-3 to the Rangers, the dump-the-puck-and-pray, no-scoring RAYN-juhs! They don't even have a 60-point scorer on their roster.

Theodore has exactly one person who can save him today, and it's unclear if Bruce Boudreau has that kind of belief in his starting goalie anymore. Who could blame the coach? Theodore's performance forced Boudreau to make one of the seminal decisions of his young NHL coaching career barely 60 minutes into the 2009 postseason.

Does he stick with the uninspiring impostor of the one-time highlight goalie, thereby risking an 0-2 hole entering the madness of Madison Square Garden on Monday? Or does Boudreau gamble on the kid, the soon-to-be 21-year-old, Simeon "From Russia, With Glove" Varlamov?

The change has been mulled over in the organization for a while, and Theodore last night brought to bear all his liabilities and then some -- thinking ahead to the rebound instead of concentrating on the oncoming slap shot, standing there flat-footed during the most important moments of the season thus far -- that might have forced Boudreau and General Manager George McPhee to pull the plug.

Personally, I would give Theodore one more game -- maybe one more period. For one, it's easy to remember how bad he's been and forget how good he was at certain junctures when the Capitals played meaningful hockey, which they haven't for more than a month.

The bigger reason would be Varlamov, whether things are bad enough in net to throw him into the playoff cooker immediately. If he falters and Boudreau has to go back to Theodore, then you have real problems in goal that might just mean a shocking first-round elimination.

If Theodore gives up a goal or two that has viewers in Hershey or Halifax shaking their heads, it's time to make the move. If he can weather Game 2 and secure a win, maybe his psyche and skills are salvageable for the long run.

Either way, there was real worry after Game 1 that was palpable in the corridors leading to the locker room. And it wasn't just about the goaltender.

In their zeal to show John Tortorella's team how tough they were without a still-injured Donald Brashear, the Capitals forgot to actually do what they do better than almost anyone in the NHL: put the puck in the net.

And when they finally got their offense going, Theodore did nothing to help their cause, freezing up every time he needed a big stop, giving back the lead. By the time the Rangers' vaunted penalty-killers staved off Washington's power play when it most mattered, any predictions of a Caps win in a five-game series appeared distant and almost foolish.

They're already in trouble? They're already in trouble.

Tortorella percolates more than he poses on the New York bench; he's basically Mike Keenan Lite. He was said to know how to push the Caps' buttons in 2003 when he was the coach at Tampa Bay and the Lightning knocked out Washington in the first round. His needling was supposed to translate to 2009. And after the chippy Rangers showed some grit against a much more highly skilled team last night, maybe there's something to that.

The Caps came out passionate, turning up the decibels on their purpose and drive, finishing checks, their bodies flying across the ice. These weren't the Thrashers or the Tampa Bays or the dregs of the regular season; this is the part of the calendar they've genuinely waited a year for.

But as the scoring opportunities began waning, point-blank shots pushed aside by Henrik Lundqvist, there were signs of trouble. For one, you wonder if Sergei Fedorov isn't physically hurting because he just looked a step slow on a delay-of-game penalty and didn't have his regular oomph.

And as they became desperate at the end, the nerves of all their young guns couldn't quite get a stick on the puck, even Ovie.

Worse for the Capitals, their last line of defense turned out to be their paramount liability, the reason Boudreau has a tough decision to make before Saturday. It's only Game 1, but Theodore put his coach and his teammates in this spot. He gets one more chance to bail himself and this team out. If he falters again, there's just too much at stake not to have youth served early in this postseason.

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