By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009
When the Washington Capitals took the ice yesterday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex for an optional, mellow practice session -- one skipped by most of the big names and not even overseen by Coach Bruce Boudreau, whose head was buried in video -- José Theodore strapped on his pads and went about the business of forgetting his most recent past and refusing to even think about what might happen in the very near future.
"It's the first game," he said.
That first game, though, left a lasting impression, and the Capitals -- down 1-0 to the New York Rangers in their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series -- used yesterday to begin evaluating the position that might determine whether they advance: goaltender. Theodore allowed four goals on 21 shots in Wednesday's 4-3 loss, and Boudreau addressed his impending decision thusly: "I'm not going to share it one way or another."
At the very least, that leaves the possibility that the Capitals could make a dramatic shift to rookie Simeon Varlamov for tomorrow's Game 2. Boudreau said he had not addressed either Theodore, a former league most valuable player, or Varlamov about his standing.
The situation, though, is clearly complex. Should Boudreau stick with Theodore and then he plays as he did in Game 1 -- a performance in which both he and goaltending coach Dave Prior conceded that the first and fourth goals were shaky -- then the Capitals could find themselves down by two games, heading to New York for Games 3 and 4 next week. But should Boudreau turn to Varlamov, who turns 21 later this month and has appeared in all of six NHL games, he could risk alienating his veteran, whom he might need later in the playoffs -- or later in this series. It is, indeed, delicate.
"I think all aspects of that, whether it's what's better for the team, how [does] it affect the player, how [does] it affect the dynamics of the room, all of those things always come into play," Boudreau said. "A lot of my thoughts go into what you asked, but I mean, there's an expectancy that they understand as well."
Varlamov has been thrust into this position because veteran backup Brent Johnson is, for now, unavailable following hip surgery in February. Clearly, though, Capitals officials have confidence in Varlamov, who went 4-0-1 with a 2.37 goals against average and a .918 save percentage in six appearances, five of them starts. His one loss came in overtime against Buffalo, when, as Boudreau said, "We put three of them in our own net." Prior said Varlamov has "immense physical talent," and he has improved the technical aspects of his game since arriving from the minor league Hershey Bears. Boudreau, too, played down Varlamov's lack of NHL experience.
"He has played in the Russian elite league, and he's played in the world championship in front of big crowds," Boudreau said. "So it's not like he's going to be a star-struck young guy if we went with that decision."
Theodore, 32, said he understands why his performance is being scrutinized following a season in which he posted a 2.87 goals against average and a .900 save percentage. But he was all but indignant when asked if he had considered how he would react to a change in net, even after he allowed three goals on the Rangers' first 15 shots.
"What do you mean, a switch?" he said to a group of reporters. "It's the first game. I don't know what you're really referring to. It's 1-0 in the series. I've been down 3-1 in a series, and we came back and won. I think you're jumping the gun a little bit when your team's down 1-0."
Wednesday night, Theodore took the blame for his approach on the Rangers' first goal, a play on which he remained back in the net as Scott Gomez skated in unmolested. In the third period, when Brandon Dubinsky badly faked out Washington defenseman Jeff Schultz to create a breakaway in a tie game, Theodore again sat back. Again, he was beaten.
"I'm the kind of guy, I like to come out of my crease, challenge the shooters," Theodore said yesterday. "I thought I was a little passive. I wasn't challenging like I can."
So yesterday, he and Prior began by making sure they addressed the problems and agreed on how to attack them. They quibbled on which goal was worse; Prior believed Theodore should have stopped Gomez, while Theodore was left more frustrated by Dubinsky's tiebreaker.
"I said to him, if you make a mistake like the first goal, where he backed off, then you have to deliver," Prior said. "You have to make up for it somewhere in the game. And the fourth goal is the place to make up for it. He didn't get it done there."
Prior said his duty was to make sure Theodore -- or whoever is in net tomorrow -- is prepared. So with so many Capitals opting to take the day off, Prior and Theodore went to work -- first with a lengthy talk, then with some specific drills.
"We purposely tried to make sure that when he's playing against these guys," Prior said, "when they come down the wing with some speed, that you're where you need to be to make it difficult for them to score."
When he came off the ice yesterday, Theodore trudged over to a group of fans waiting by a gate. He signed autographs on hats and jerseys, including his own No. 60. As he did, he smiled broadly.
"The story changes so quickly," Theodore said. "You're down one game, and then you say, 'The goalie's shaky, got outplayed,' which was the case. And then another game is a different story."
But a day after the Capitals lost their first game of the playoffs, the question remained: Will Theodore be part of writing the story of Game 2?