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Facing Challenges On and Off the Ice, Theodore Is the Starter, 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.

Varlamov arrived last week with new red, white and blue pads and a freshly painted Capitals-themed mask in tow, a departure from the makeshift, maroon-accented equipment he donned last year after beginning the season with the minor-league Hershey Bears. Fans wearing Varlamov's No. 40 jersey dot the stands at the team's Arlington practice facility, and when the Capitals hired a new goaltender coach over the summer, they tapped former NHL goalie Arturs Irbe, in part, team officials said, because he can communicate with Varlamov in his native Russian.

An intense competition will officially open Thursday in Buffalo, where the Capitals play the first of six preseason games. Boudreau said the coaching staff has not yet decided which goaltender will face the Sabres, but he hinted that the three goaltenders will alternate starts in the first three exhibition games.

Theodore must prove he can play like the goalie who was so solid midway through last season. Varlamov needs to show that last spring was no fluke. Neuvirth, meanwhile, has to prove that he belongs in the same conversation as the other two.

"Redemption is a big word," said Theodore, 12th in the league in victories last season with 32. "Like we talked about during the season, I played a lot of games. We had a good record. I was happy with the way the season went [but] in the playoff I had one game and I didn't play [again]. Like I always say, you play to play in the playoff and last year that didn't happen. So that's something I will keep in the back of my mind."

That, obviously, is not all that's on his mind these days as he grieves the loss of his son with Stephanie Cloutier and their daughter, Romy.

Theodore acknowledged that he's facing "the biggest challenge" of his life. He also said he's grateful for the support he's received from his teammates during his family's difficult time and expressed his desire to thank the hundreds of fans for their cards and well-wishes.

But what's proven to be most therapeutic, Theodore added, has been returning to the rink each morning these last few weeks, gliding onto the ice and being "around the guys."

"We consider ourselves an extended family for him," veteran defenseman Brian Pothier said. "We all try to carry each other's burdens in this room. Nobody has experienced what he's gone through, and I'm not sure anybody will. We can't say that we understand, but we can treat him like our brother, have a lot of fun with him at the rink."

Boudreau added: "We all feel saddened. As a parent there is nothing worse in the world. Nobody ever gets over that. But he's a professional and he knows what he has to do to succeed."

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