Caps doubters still point to Theodore
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Jose Theodore sat alone on the bench after a long practice Tuesday, staring out into space as he possibly contemplated the road ahead on the eve of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
For all the attention paid to reigning Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green and a deep supporting cast that also includes the likes of Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, any single conversation one has concerning the playoff chances of the Washington Capitals comes back to one name and one name only: Jose Theodore.
From NHL scouts to media to Caps fans on message boards, there is a universal question: Can Jose Theodore provide the goaltending this team needs to win a championship?
"I have all the faith in the world in Theo," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said Tuesday.
"We're confident in him," said Ovechkin.
Whether it's fair or not, Theodore, by far, is the most slighted member of this Caps team.
"I've noticed," Caps goalie coach Dave Prior said Tuesday. "The goalie often gets more credit than he deserves and more blame than he deserves in this league. He seems to be a target. I told him that he must have upset a few people in his past because he's not getting the respect."
It might be because he's not exactly the warm-and-fuzzy type with the media. On this day, he answered all of our questions after practice, but there was clearly a perfunctory element to it all. You have the sense that even though he's polite about the whole thing, he'd rather be doing just about anything else.
Perhaps this is the byproduct of being spit out of the Montreal blender three years ago. He was the favorite son in the province of Quebec after winning the Hart and Vezina trophies in 2002 and providing memorable first-round upsets of favored Boston in 2002 and 2004. But by the time the NHL lockout had come and gone, so had his mojo, and the Habs shipped Theodore and his 3.46 goal-against average to Colorado before the trade deadline in 2005-06.
There seems to be a chip on his shoulder ever since his Montreal exit.
But the trepidation with Theodore from most Caps observers and fans is based more on cold, hard facts. His 2.87 goals-against average this season is the worst of any of the eight Eastern Conference starting goalies in these playoffs. That's why some people in these parts are nervous ahead of their first-round series with the New York Rangers.
To be fair, one should keep in mind what kind of team he has in front of him when looking at those numbers this season. Is there a more offensively gifted team in the league? The Caps, wisely playing to their strengths, play an up-tempo game that focuses on puck possession and creating offensive chances. Let's put it this way -- they're not sitting back like many teams in this league and protecting the fort.
"Because we're so talented, we own the puck a larger portion of the game than other teams," Prior said. "The other team doesn't have the opportunity to get that many shots if we have the puck most of the game. We have some high-risk players and that's why they score so many goals as they do. The problem for the goaltender is that when we do have a breakdown, if often creates an outnumbered rush or an excellent scoring chance [for the other team].
"The job on this team for the goaltender is to bail your teammates out when things go wrong," Prior added. "And so with a diminished amount of shots and some real good scoring chances, it's a difficult team for a goalie to have top numbers in the league. But as long as he can be up there in winning percentage, I think that's how Grant Fuhr looked at it."
Fuhr is an interesting comparison. The Hall of Fame goalie never had the best GAA or save percentage backstopping the run-and-gun Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. But he got plenty of W's, making sure he stopped the puck when it mattered.
We put that to Theodore on Tuesday and he didn't dismiss the comparison.
"For sure, that was one of the biggest adjustments early on here," said Theodore, who joined the Caps last summer after signing a two-year, $9 million deal. "You can't look at the fact of letting in one or two goals, as long as you don't let in bad goals and you make the saves when it counts.
"We have a team that can score goals, so you know as a goalie that, even though we might be down one- or two-zip, you know our team can come back."
The message in the Washington dressing room in recent days has been to try to tighten up. They still want to be the high-octane Caps, but they want to play smarter defensively with the playoffs here.
"Some of our guys definitely think offense before defense sometimes, and sometimes we have breakdowns," said Caps defenseman John Erskine. "We've been trying to clean that up. We don't want to leave [Theodore] back there by himself."
This must also be said about Theodore: He has proven himself to be a clutch first-round goalie. He's a perfect 4-0 in four career opening playoff rounds, winning a pair each in Montreal and Colorado. Not a bad thing to have on your résumé at all.
"For me, I approach it as the best time of the year, you're a step closer to the Cup," Theodore said while taking his equipment off. "I approach it the positive way. In the playoffs, you try to step it up and show everybody that you like that kind of pressure."
If he shows up his critics, this could be a long and fun spring for the Washington Capitals.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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