By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; D01
Although Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau isn't expected to settle on his playoff goaltender for several more weeks, veteran José Theodore is making a strong case for himself, one year after being replaced a game into the postseason run.
Theodore stopped 30 shots Saturday night, and newly acquired Eric Belanger scored his first goal as a Capital to help the NHL's top team hold on for an efficient 2-0 victory over the New York Rangers.
"He was by far our best player," Boudreau said of Theodore, who recorded his first shutout since last March. "Any time they were putting pressure on us, José would get it and he would stop it and he would not let a rebound go, and that's, I think, the key to his game."
The Capitals earned their third straight win overall and 13th in a row at Verizon Center, extending a franchise record and tying them for the league's second longest streak at home in the past 15 years.
And they did it with another uncharacteristically ordinary effort from the two-time MVP. Alex Ovechkin finished without a point for the third time in four games and saw his goal drought reach six games, his longest since a nine-game stretch early last season.
"I think if you look at [Nicklas Backstrom] and Alex, they're just off by like half a second," Boudreau said. "Their timing since coming back from the Olympics has been just off a little."
Ovechkin agreed, saying he's still recovering from his heartbreak in Vancouver, where Russia lost in the quarterfinals: "I think we're still feeling about [the] losing in the Olympics. It's hard to realize that we lost, and Sweden and Russia don't go nowhere."
Despite taking a game-high seven shots, Ovechkin also surrendered his perch atop the goal scoring list. He and Sidney Crosby went into the Olympic break with 42 goals, but the Pittsburgh captain edged into the league lead with a pair of goals earlier Saturday.
Ovechkin's offense, though, wasn't needed on a night when Eric Fehr and Belanger picked up the scoring slack and Theodore earned the first star.
Fehr opened the scoring 10 minutes 56 seconds into the contest by finishing off an expiring five-on-three power play. The big winger raced to the net, snagged a deflected crossing pass from Tomas Fleischmann and flipped it underneath the crossbar, just out of the reach of the Rangers' 6-foot-4 backup goalie, Alex Auld, who was playing instead of all-star netminder Henrik Lundqvist. New Capitals defenseman Joe Corvo was credited with the secondary assist for his first point with Washington.
"I asked him, 'Have you taken some quick pills lately?' " Boudreau said, referring to Fehr, who has goals in two straight games.
Auld played well, but he could only hold the league's best offense in check for so long.
Belanger's first goal since coming to Washington from Minnesota on Wednesday was a pretty one. Promoted to the second line after not scoring a point in his Capitals debut in Thursday's 5-4 win over Tampa Bay, , Belanger sneaked behind the defense on the rush and put the finishing touch on a nifty passing sequence between Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich. The pivotal goal came at 13:38 of the second period and sent the tightly contested game into the third period with the Capitals ahead 2-0.
The night's biggest story, though, unfolded at the other end of the rink.
Theodore improved to 12-0-2 in his past 14 appearances and has stopped 53 of 54 shots he has faced since the Capitals returned from the Olympic break.
"The last month and a half, two months, I have felt good," he said. "You just want to have that good stretch when it counts, and I'm having that right now."
Meantime, Semyon Varlamov, the rookie who displaced Theodore in the playoffs last season, hasn't completely regained his form after missing two months with groin muscle and knee injuries. He has surrendered 10 goals in his past two starts.
Theodore "is brimming with confidence. We hope he can keep it. It gives us a lot of options in goal," Boudreau said.
Of the 10 shots Theodore faced in the second period, only one was a prime scoring chance. That said, the Capitals' veteran had to be on his game to keep it out of the net.
Capitals defenseman Shaone Morrisonn and his defensive partner, rookie John Carlson, had an apparent communication breakdown that resulted in Morrisonn making a pass into the Washington slot -- right to Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky. Fortunately for Morrisonn and Carlson, Theodore stretched out and got enough of his blocker on the puck at 5:30 of the second period to preserve the Capitals' 1-0 lead.
"I thought it was a delayed offside," Morrisonn said of the mixup. "It was a brain fart. It was a mental error you can't have. J.T. played great, and I told him after that I owe him dinner for that."
Theodore added: "It was obviously a key save. There's not a better feeling as a goaltender than when you can bail out a friend, a teammate like that."
Rangers leading scorer Marian Gaborik was held to three shots, and he also took an interference penalty with 1:51 remaining in regulation, all but squashing any chance the Rangers had of rallying.