By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; D01
One year after his unceremonious benching one game into the postseason, José Theodore will return as the Washington Capitals' starting goaltender when they open the playoffs Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens. This time, however, Coach Bruce Boudreau said he plans to give the veteran more leeway than he was afforded last spring.
"He knows he's playing," Boudreau said Tuesday after practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "He knows he's going to be in the net."
Theodore watched from the bench for the Capitals' next 13 games after yielding four goals on 21 shots in a 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 1 last year. He didn't return to the ice until Game 7 of the semifinals against Pittsburgh, and that was only after his replacement, Semyon Varlamov, yielded four goals on 18 shots in an eventual 6-2 loss.
"That's one of the reasons I wanted it to be known now [so] he doesn't get bombarded by these questions," Boudreau added. "It's all out there. If we do make a switch, you'll see it on the ice."
While Boudreau was impressed enough with Theodore's play over the past two months to hand him the keys to the NHL's top team, his former Montreal teammate Tomas Plekanec apparently is not. The Canadiens' leading scorer was quoted in Tuesday's editions of French-language newspaper La Presse as saying: "It's not as though we were up against [New Jersey's Martin] Brodeur or [Buffalo's Ryan] Miller. They don't have a dominant goalie. . . . I think you could say that our goalies have been better than theirs."
When Plekanec's comments were relayed to Theodore, the Capitals goalie fired back.
"Tomas who? Jagr?" Theodore said, referring to five-time scoring champion Jaromir Jagr, Plekanec's Olympic teammate with the Czech Republic. "Oh, Plekanec, okay. I thought you meant Jagr."
With a smirk on his face, Theodore added: "They are two of the best goalies in the league. They got the edge. [Jaroslav] Halak [and Carey Price] are two solid goalies. I'm just lucky to be part of a good team. That's pretty much it."
Boudreau also weighed in, saying, "I'll take José's record the last 23 games over those two guys [Miller and Brodeur]."
Theodore's performance during the aforementioned 23 games, in fact, is what earned him the chance to redeem himself after last year's late-season letdown. Theodore went 20-0-3 since Jan. 13 with a 2.58 goals against average and a .922 save percentage during that span.
Boudreau was particularly impressed with Theodore's third-period performances -- he stopped all but nine of the 229 shots he faced -- and with his finishing kick. This season, he posted a .911 save percentage in his final 10 appearances as opposed to a .889 percentage in the same time period a year ago, which Boudreau said contributed to his early hook in the playoffs.
"It's quite a different situation from this year to last year," Boudreau said when asked about pulling Theodore one game into his team's run. "He's been our guy and his last loss [in regulation] was early January. Obviously he could lose again. But what people don't realize is that last year, his 10 previous games going into playoffs weren't anywhere near what his 10 previous game are [this year.]"
"So there is no short leash," he added. "He's the guy we're going to go with, and see how he goes."
Theodore, one of seven goalies to win 30 or more games the past two seasons, credited his second-half surge as well as his third-period domination with having a sharper focus.
"Obviously, the third period is always more important," he said. "If you're down a goal, you want to make sure you don't get down two goals. And if you're up a goal, you want to make the big save to keep it that way."
The Canadiens, however, won't be all Theodore will be up against when the series shifts next week to Montreal, his home town and the city where he starred in 2002, claiming both the Hart and Vezina trophies. The media spotlight and off-ice distractions led to Theodore's departure in the 2005-06 season, when he was dealt to Colorado for David Aebischer.
Theodore's only start in Montreal as a visiting goaltender came as a member of the Avalanche in October 2006. He yielded eight goals on 44 shots in a 8-5 defeat. Since joining the Capitals, he has started two games against the Canadiens, winning both at home.
In February, Theodore made a relief appearance at Bell Centre when rookie Michal Neuvirth left the game with an injury and allowed four goals on 25 shots in a 6-5 overtime loss that ended the Capitals' 14-game winning streak.
The 22,000-plus fans on hand taunted him with a derisive chant of "Tey-oh!" Asked about the lively Montreal crowd and their chants, Boudreau said mockingly: "We like the song. They can sing it all they want. They're always in unison and it's really good."
Asked if he considered this an opportunity to redeem himself in Montreal, Theodore said, "Not really, no."
"He's been a guy who has said from the beginning, 'Last year was last year. If [I] have to prove myself, I've proved myself my whole life and [I'll] prove myself again.' And he did it in the face of a lot of adversity this year," Boudreau said, referring to the death of Theodore's infant son in August due to complications related to a premature birth. "I give him full credit for everything he's done and what's happened. I think he'll do fine and he'll be ready."
Capitals notes: First-line center Nicklas Backstrom missed practice with an illness, according to Boudreau, and is "questionable" for the opener. He was replaced on the top line by Brendan Morrison. . . . Alex Ovechkin left practice early but is expected to play in the opener, Boudreau said.