By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010; D01
The question has lingered over the Washington Capitals for weeks, and with two games remaining before the playoffs, Coach Bruce Boudreau still hasn't named which goaltender will start Game 1 of the quarterfinals.
"I haven't discussed anything with anybody," Boudreau said. "I'm still evaluating. Nothing has been etched in stone."
The prevailing sentiment around the league is that Boudreau hasn't committed to either José Theodore or Semyon Varlamov because he believes that it's possible, if not likely, the Capitals could need both in their quest for the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
While that's not the conventional approach, it's not unprecedented in recent NHL history, either. Three of the past four champions, in fact, started the playoffs with one goaltender and switched to another en route to the Cup.
Goaltending-by-committee is also consistent with Boudreau's longstanding philosophy of riding the hot netminder and the pattern he has established over the past two months. Neither Theodore nor Varlamov have received more than two consecutive starts since Varlamov returned from groin muscle and knee injuries in mid-February.
"I took out Roberto Luongo in [the American Hockey League playoffs] when he wasn't getting the job done," said Boudreau, who coached Luongo in the New York Islanders organization. "This is right after he just won a series single-handedly."
While statistics suggest the job should belong to Theodore, who is 19-0-3 in his last 22 decisions compared with Varlamov's 3-3-3 record since coming off injured reserve, the fact that Boudreau hasn't come out and named him the starter has raised eyebrows, particularly because the coach replaced Theodore one game into last year's playoff run with an untested Varlamov.
"The last couple of months I've been pretty consistent," Theodore said. "So there's not much more I can do."
Kevin Weekes, a former NHL goalie who now works as an analyst for NHL Network, said that even if Boudreau has made up his mind, by not announcing it publicly, he's creating an "unnecessary controversy."
"I like Bruce Boudreau, he's done a great job turning that franchise around," Weekes said. "But it's creating an unnecessary controversy that doesn't need to be there -- because, whichever way they go, they are operating from a position of strength."The case for Theodore
Following a 4-3 loss to the Rangers in Game 1 in the first round of last season's playoffs, Theodore was pulled and did not get another start. Then, in August, his 2-month-old son died from complications related to a premature birth. Although the 33-year-old veteran is known for his mental toughness, even the most ardent Theodore supporters had their concerns.
But with just a few exceptions, Theodore has put together one of his most consistent and productive regular seasons, an effort underscored by his remarkable run the past eight weeks.
"I think this stretch, consistency, it's right up there with that MVP season," he said, referring to 2002 when he claimed the Hart and Vezina trophies. "These last 22 games, it's been the level that I can play, the level I want to play for a full season. It's good to feel that way again."
During his streak without a regulation defeat, Theodore, who has a history of strong second-half performances, has posted a 2.61 goals against average and a .921 save percentage. That save percentage would put him among the top seven in the league.
"First of all, the confidence that he's going to win and stop the puck is there every time he goes out," Boudreau said. "Sometimes [in the past] you didn't see that. In the third period now, if it's a close game, he's been determined to keep us in it -- whether it's the streak or just his mind-set now. This time last year, maybe in the third period, somehow, somewhere, something would beat him late. Now you know nothing is beating him."
But, as of practice Thursday, all Theodore could be certain of was that he's starting Friday's game against the Atlanta Thrashers.
"It's speculation," Theodore said. "As a player, that's exactly where you don't want to start thinking too much. This year, whoever is going to start the playoffs -- we still don't know -- we know how quickly it can change [because] last year it changed after one game."Varlamov's struggles
While Varlamov is considered to be the Capitals' future goaltender, there's some concern about his readiness to lead the team on a grueling playoff run.
After replacing Theodore in the playoffs, he carried the Capitals to within a game of the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in more than a decade. But a weak team effort coupled with his worst outing as an NHL player resulted in a crushing Game 7 loss to rival Pittsburgh, a contest that ended, interestingly, with an exhausted Varlamov back on the bench after surrendering four goals.
"Stop thinking about it?" Varlamov said Thursday. "I never stop thinking about that."
Varlamov beat out fellow prospect Michal Neuvirth in training camp, then opened the season 12-1-1, despite allowing three or more goals seven times. By early December the 21-year-old Russian had posted his second shutout of the season in Tampa and seemed on his way to claiming the No. 1 job.
Then a pair of injuries, an issue he's struggled with throughout his career, took their toll.
Varlamov suffered a groin injury on the last shot he faced in a 3-0 win in Tampa on Dec. 7. A month later, while on a rehab assignment with the Capitals' minor league affiliate in Hershey, Pa., he sprained his knee.
In all, the injuries cost him two months and, as it turned out, the confidence he had seemingly just regained.
Rusty from the longest layoff of his professional career, Varlamov yielded 20 goals in his first five starts combined. But since allowing four goals in an overtime loss in Carolina on March 18, he has shown glimpses of the goalie from last spring.
"Everything is good," he said of his health. "Right now I feel comfortable."
Boudreau has been encouraged by Varlamov's recent efforts. Varlamov, meantime, is taking a philosophical approach to not knowing for sure whether he'll start the playoffs on the bench or in the crease.
"We've never talked about the first game of the playoffs," he said. "We don't know. [Theodore] doesn't know. I don't know, too. It's okay."Are two better than one?
Boudreau said there are other reasons for not tapping either goaltender as his playoff starter, including the desire to keep potential opponents guessing and Theodore and Varlamov hungry.
"They know they can't really afford to have too many bad games in a row," he said, "or we'll use the other guy."
Which isn't so rare in the playoffs these days.
In 2006, Carolina Coach Paul Maurice replaced Martin Gerber twice before Cam Ward, then 20 years old, carried the Hurricanes to the championship. Anaheim's Ilya Bryzgalov was the Ducks' starter in 2007 while Jean-Sebastien Giguere attended to family matters. Giguere returned and led the Ducks to the title. Then in 2008, Dominik Hasek started the playoffs as Detroit's No. 1, but he was sent to the bench after two games in favor of Chris Osgood.
Last season, however, Marc-André Fleury carried the load all the way for the Penguins.
While that could happen in Washington, it would seem unlikely.
"The whole thing for me is [doing] whatever it takes to win at that moment," Boudreau said. "And, if I believe as the coach, that this is what it's going to take to win, that's what you do. Whether it's against the rules or against what common sense says, it's all going to be on me anyway, so I might as well do what I believe in."