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To Keep Going, Caps Count On Huet for Stops

The Washington Capitals, who had an NHL-worst 6-14-1 record on Nov. 22, rally to win their final seven games, capturing the Southeast Division championship and the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008; Page E01

In the NHL playoffs, the difference between a short run and a long one often comes down to whether a team has a hot goaltender.

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Right now, the Washington Capitals' Cristobal Huet is perhaps the hottest goaltender in the league.

Several Capitals have been lauded for raising their game during the team's improbable surge over the final month of the regular season, a remarkable 11-1 streak that propelled them to their first playoff berth in five years. But it could be argued that no player was more important than Huet, who, since being acquired from Montreal at the trade deadline, has won 11 of his 13 starts, including his last nine.

"It's what we needed," said Huet, whose winning streak is the longest for a Capitals' goalie since Pete Peeters in 1987. "We all played like every game was our last game. But now it's just the beginning."

On Friday, Huet will make his seventh career appearance in a playoff game when Washington hosts the Philadelphia Flyers at Verizon Center in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. For the Capitals, it marks the completion of a remarkable rally from last place. For Huet, a 32-year-old native of France who took a circuitous route to the NHL, it's a measure of vindication after being discarded by the Montreal Canadiens six weeks ago.

"We all have pride, and we are all competitors," Huet said with a smile.

Huet began the season as Montreal's No. 1 goaltender, but when prodigy Carey Price proved he was ready to assume the starting role, Huet was pushed aside, then dealt for a second-round draft pick in 2009 -- a steal for a player of his ability.

In the first three weeks of Huet's tenure, he shared playing time with incumbent starter Olie Kolzig. But two nights after the Capitals' 5-0 loss in Chicago with Kolzig in net March 19, Coach Bruce Boudreau tapped Huet as the starter in Atlanta. He's been in net since.

His greatest strength, his teammates say, is that he controls rebounds, steers shots harmlessly to the corner and consistently makes the toughest saves. He also remains unruffled under pressure, which has had a calming effect on the young defensemen in front of him.

"He sees the puck real well," Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior said of Huet. "He has an ability to see what's happening, and there's no panic in their game, and they react to what they see, quite precisely. That's what gives him the edge over other goaltenders. It's a talent that not a lot of guys possess."

Added defenseman Mike Green: "At the times when he's needed to make big saves, he's made them, almost every time. As a defenseman, playing in front of him, he's so calm and relaxed you know where rebounds are going to go, and you know that he's going to make that first stop."

Huet began playing hockey at age 6 in his home town of Saint-Martin-d'Heres after some urging from his father, an ardent fan of the game. Huet immediately gravitated toward goaltending.

With cat-like reflexes and a fierce work ethic, Huet steadily climbed the rungs in his country and eventually led H.C. Grenoble to the French Elite League championship in 1997-98, earning most valuable domestic player that same season.

That's when he realized he might have a future in the NHL -- but not if he remained in France. So at age 23, four years after most prospects are drafted, Huet joined Swiss Elite League team Lugano and began working with goaltending coach Tom Hedican, who recognized Huet's talent, though raw and unrefined, and began preparing him for "the big league," Huet said.

"It's a very unusual road," Huet said. "I had to climb the French league, then the Swiss league and then start over again here."

In 2001, Huet was drafted in the seventh round (214th overall) by Los Angeles and a year later was signed by the Kings and assigned to their minor league team in Manchester, N.H., where the coach happened to be Boudreau.

Boudreau had Huet for just 30 games before he was promoted to the Kings during the 2002-03 season and established himself as an NHL-caliber netminder, making his first NHL start March 14 against the Capitals, a 3-1 victory for Huet.

He was dealt to Montreal in June 2004, but when Canadiens management deemed Price ready to assume everyday duty, Huet was on the move again. Montreal went on to win the Eastern Conference; Huet helped lead the Capitals to a historic comeback from last place to Southeast Division champions.

But he didn't want to discuss his future here -- yet. In the final year of a contract that pays him $2.75 million, Huet is going to attract several suitors on the open market, several of whom could entice him with a longer deal than the Capitals are willing to offer.

"This was a second chance, a second season for me," Huet said. "We have some great moments to live. We can talk about that after the season."

If he continues to play the way he has, that could be a while.

"Everyone knows that your goalie has to make some big saves in any playoff run," left wing Matt Cooke said. "We're more than confident that Huet will do that for us."

Capitals Note: Injured defensemen Shaone Morrisonn (upper body) and Jeff Schultz (undisclosed) did not practice yesterday, but have not been ruled out for the Flyers series.

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