By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010; D06
Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
After being relegated to backup duty last month, José Theodore has spent the past week proving he's still got what it takes to be a starting goaltender in the NHL.
With his teammates stuck in neutral for long stretches Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings, Theodore made 44 saves, including 15 during a dreadful first period, to keep it close. Then Nicklas Backstrom and David Steckel struck 46 seconds apart late in the third period to lift the Washington Capitals to a stirring 3-2 victory at Verizon Center.
"It's pretty good, but I never try to get too high or too low on myself," said Theodore, who has won three straight starts after beginning nine of the previous 11 games on the bench. "Like I said before, when I wasn't playing, my confidence was pretty high because I was working hard, practicing hard. I've been in that type of situation before."
Although it was win No. 31 for the Capitals, there was a sense in the locker room afterward that this one meant more, both because of the opponent and the manner in which it occurred.
"It's a good way to gauge where you're at," said Matt Bradley, who scored the Capitals' first goal. "Their record doesn't show how good they are this year. But when you're playing arguably the best team over the past 10 years, it's always a great challenge. We were lucky to get the win. But it was still a win."
Detroit defenseman Brian Rafalski rifled a shot between Theodore's pads 11 minutes 7 seconds into the third period to put the Red Wings ahead 2-1. But, moments later, Todd Bertuzzi gave the Capitals the break they needed.
With Bertuzzi in the penalty box for tripping Mike Green, Backstrom took a page out of Alex Ovechkin's playbook, slipping the puck past Red Wings' defenseman Brad Stuart on the rush before beating Chris Osgood, who, in his first start in 13 games, only faced 23 shots from the league's top-ranked offense.
"I've never seen Ovie do one like that," Backstrom joked before turning serious. "It's a great thing to find a win anyway, even if they outshot us 46 to something."
Before the buzz from Backstrom's goal had died down, the fans were back on their feet. Steckel, a fourth-line forward who went the first 28 games without a goal, delivered one of the season's biggest. After a point shot by Alexander Semin was deflected high in the air, Steckel fought off Darren Helm in the slot and flipped the winner past Osgood with 5:59 left to play.
"It was just lucky," said Steckel, who also helped anchor a penalty kill that kept the Red Wings scoreless on five opportunities. "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I thought it went wide at first."
Steckel's goal capped a comeback that seemed unlikely after Washington's recent habit of weak starts saw them badly outplayed in the early going. The only reason the first period ended scoreless, in fact, was the outstanding play of Theodore. The veteran single-handedly kept the Capitals in contention despite the fact that they were outshot 15-3, which matched their season low for shots on goal.
"That was probably the best I've seen him," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Theodore. "I'm watching going, 'This must have been how he was when he won the Hart and Vezina [trophies] in Montreal that year .' Without him, it very easily could have been 6-0 at the end of the first period."
The Capitals' shot deficit -- 23 -- marked their biggest of the season. The previous high 13, came in the teams' first meeting, a 3-2 Red Wings' win on Oct. 10.
Theodore began the second period with a flashy glove save on Stuart, but the Red Wings finally put one past him a short while later. With a wide open Washington net, Daniel Cleary whiffed. But the Red Wings winger flipped his backhander, from the goal line, off Theodore and into the net to give Detroit a 1-0 lead.
The Red Wings, whose signature is puck control, continued to impose their will. But the Capitals caught a break when Bradley finished off a slick display of passing. Green made a stretch pass to Boyd Gordon, who sent a rink-wide backhand to a cutting Bradley. The fourth liner netted his eighth goal, one off his career high set as a rookie with San Jose in 2000-01.
"I think we're resilient," Boudreau said. We could have give up a few times. I think that was the best team we played all year and I'm shocked they're in ninth place [in the Western Conference] right now."
Capitals notes: Ovechkin was held without a shot on goal for only the third time in his career and the first time since October 8, 2008. Karl Alzner was recalled from the minor league Hershey Bears and was in the lineup. Alzner took the roster spot of rookie John Carlson, who was sent down Monday.
Although Boudreau reiterated Tuesday morning that Semyon Varlamov has not suffered a setback in his recovery from a sprained right knee, the rookie goaltender did not skate for a second straight day. Still, Boudreau said he hopes Varlamov can participate in a full team practice this week. Defensemen John Erskine and Brian Pothier each participated in the morning skate. Boudreau is hopeful that Erskine will Thursday, less hopeful that Pothier will.