Theodore provides stable goaltending for Capitals

With only nine games left in the season, the Washington Capitals have already found their playoff goalie — and it is not Semyon Varlamov.

Varlamov had a stellar 2009 playoff run and a great start to the 2009-2010 season. An injury early in the season put him on the sidelines, and he hasn’t looked the same since. The once brick wall constantly allows soft goals and looks out of sorts in the crease.

Meanwhile, Jose Theodore has done nothing but silence his critics. Before Wednesday night’s matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was 26-7-6 on the year. More important than his overall record is the fact that he has only lost two games — both of which were in overtime — since Jan. 13. When the season began, he looked like a shell of the former Vezina Trophy-winning goalie. Now, he looks head and shoulders better than he ever did.

Some may be quick to point out that Theodore doesn’t exactly have a pristine goals against average or save percentage, but his numbers are deceiving. There are two things to know about the Washington Capitals: they score a lot of goals and they give up a lot of goals. The style the team plays with does not lend itself to low-scoring affairs. Winger Eric Belanger described Washington’s play style best when he said the team plays “free-wheeling” hockey. In short, the Caps don’t play the best defense, and that cannot be Theodore’s fault.

It would be a lie to say that he didn’t give up soft goals; you would be hard pressed to find a goalie that didn’t. What is important to know about Theo is that he consistently comes up with the big saves when the Caps need it.

The short and sweet of the situation is that Theodore gives Washington its best chance to win in the playoffs. A major difference between last season and this season is that there was a debate about Theodore’s ability at the end of last season. Down the stretch, he did not play anything remotely close to the hockey he is playing this year. He lost seven games in March and April last season, including a 7-4 loss to the Florida Panthers in the final game of the regular season.

There is no concrete explanation for the change in his play, but his mindset may have something to do with it. Theodore’s demeanor on the ice now, opposed to earlier in the season is much different. He looks like he is simply having fun playing the game he loves. It is no secret that athletes often play their best when they let loose during games. Caps fans have seen Theo consistently throw down the double pad stack like he is Ed Belfour and, in reality, who wouldn’t have fun doing that?

Head Coach Bruce Boudreau must stick with Theodore in the first round, no matter what. If he has an awful couple of games in the first round, there will be calls to switch him with Varly like they did last year. This year’s circumstances are different than last’s, though; the netminder has shown he is tougher mentally than he was last year. In August of this year, Theodore’s two-month-old son died, but he was still able to turn in a stellar season. Some people are not able to recover from something like that in a decade — let alone seven months. If that doesn’t show he is mentally tough nothing will.

Obviously anything can happen in the stretch run of the season. If Theo is thrown off his game then the Caps will have to reassess the situation in net. As it stands right now, there is no reason not to have faith in Theodore. This is not an attack on Varly; he will be a stellar goalie, but he needs to straighten himself out before he can take on the starting role again.

This year’s Washington team is a special one and has a serious chance to win the Eastern Conference and the Stanley Cup. Unlike last season, this is a complete team with a defense that can move the puck, an offense that can function without stars Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin and a rock between the pipes.

Theodore’s wins are not always pretty and he is not someone who will shutout the opponent, but he gets the job done. If Washington wins it all, he certainly won’t be the reason why. At the same time, if he keeps playing like he has in the second half of the season, he won’t lose it for the Caps either.

You can reach this staff writer at atomlinson@theeagleonline.com.

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