Facing Challenges On and Off the Ice, Jose Theodore Is the Capitals' Starting Goaltender, for Now

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nothing José Theodore has experienced in his 12-year NHL career could have prepared him for what he's going through now.

As training camp intensifies this week, the Washington Capitals goaltender finds himself facing battles on two fronts -- the fight to secure the starting job after being cast aside one game into last spring's postseason, and the struggle to remain focused after the death of his two-month-old son late last month because of complications stemming from a premature birth.

"For now," he said quietly, "I'm just doing the best that I can."

The reality of being a professional athlete will demand no less from him on the ice as he attempts to fend off what's expected to be a fierce challenge from Semyon Varlamov, the 21-year-old who thrived when he abruptly replaced Theodore in the playoffs, and touted prospect Michal Neuvirth, last season's playoff MVP in the American Hockey League.

Over the next two weeks, intriguing story lines will unfold all over the ice as the Capitals finalize the opening night roster. But none will be more scrutinized, or potentially have more impact on the upcoming season, than the one that will play out between the pipes.

Its roots go back to the Capitals' playoff opener last spring, when, after an inconsistent regular season, Theodore yielded four goals on 21 shots in a 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers.

Two days later, Coach Bruce Boudreau made the gutsiest decision of his coaching career, replacing Theodore with Varlamov, a 20-year-old at the time with only six NHL appearances on his résumé.

Varlamov started the next 13 games, carrying the Capitals to within a victory of the Eastern Conference finals while solidifying his position as the future of the franchise in goal. Washington's postseason run, however, ended the way it began -- with Theodore in net. Boudreau sent Varlamov to the bench less than 23 minutes into the Capitals' 6-2, Game 7 thrashing by the Pittsburgh Penguins after the previously unflappable young Russian allowed four goals on 18 shots.

Then in August, Boudreau named Theodore the Capitals' No. 1 goalie entering training camp, saying, "José deserves the respect of a guy who has been in the league for 12 years. Just because he lost the job initially in the playoffs doesn't mean he won't be allowed to refocus and get it again."

It's now up to Theodore to hang on to that title.

"There's always someone pushing you," he said. "I've been in the league 12 years now and I can't really remember a year when nobody was pushing me. It started in Montreal with [Mathieu] Garon and then with [Jeff] Hackett. In Colorado it was Peter Budaj. There's always someone pushing you and this year it's going to be two guys who want to be in the NHL, they want to play and they are great goalies. I know I can't let down. I have to be consistent, I have to play well, because there are guys ready to jump in there."

Theodore, who turned 33 on Sunday and is entering the final year of his two-year, $9 million contract, doesn't need any reminders of what's at stake.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company