- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It was the night before the holiday break, and the Washington Capitals were in a giving mood.

Jose Theodore and the Caps were on the verge of handing two points to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Theodore was banished to the bench after yielding three goals and replaced with a hobbled Brent Johnson.

But that night was when this season turned for Theodore, who signed a two-year, $9 million contract in the offseason but had failed to meet expectations.

Coach Bruce Boudreau gave Theodore a second chance after the first intermission, and Theodore’s strong play in the final 40-plus minutes helped the Caps rally from a four-goal deficit to a 5-4 overtime victory.

“It was a time when things were really not going well and you find a way,” Theodore said. “That game, we were down 3-0 in the first, and I got pulled. But I had been practicing really hard and knew that it was just around the corner for when I could see some positive results. Going back into the game and making some big saves in the second and third and having the team battle back to win - it was just the perfect scenario to say, ‘This is where things are turning around.’

“Even as a team, I think it was a turning point.”

Audio clip: Hear Thom Loverro explain why all Washingtonians should become Caps fans, now

A turning point, perhaps. A permanent pass for Theodore if things go badly for the Capitals in the playoffs, no.

The Capitals have one of the most feared offenses in the NHL, and if they falter early the Stanley Cup playoffs’ four-round format, there is a great chance the blame still will be laid at Theodore’s skates.

“The thing with Washington - it’s not a question of their offense and it’s not a question of their defense. It’s a question of whether the goalie can get it done,” said Pierre McGuire, an analyst for TSN and NBC. “In Game 7 [against Philadelphia] last year, Cristobal Huet wasn’t good enough.”

Given the expectations when this season began, tough scrutiny of Theodore was inevitable.

The Caps finished the regular season near the top of the NHL standings as expected. Beginning Wednesday night against the Rangers, every game and every goal allowed will be analyzed as Theodore attempts to help Washington on a deep postseason march.

“There is always a lot of pressure on goalies in the playoffs,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “It is the most important position on the ice, but he’s got [32] wins this year and we’ve got [108] points, so he must be doing something right.”

If Theodore wins half as many games in the next two months as he did this season, McPhee’s decision to grab Theodore when contract negotiations with Cristobal Huet fell apart will be remembered as the greatest Plan B in the team’s 35-year existence.

“We don’t care about people. We don’t care about what they think [about Theodore] or what they say,” Alex Ovechkin said. “Good stuff, bad stuff - we don’t care. He is a good goalie, and we trust him. He can save us at any time.”

The Caps have proved they can score with anyone, but they also have one of the least experienced defense corps of the 16 playoff teams. Washington also deploys an aggressive style tailor-made for the team’s dynamic offensive weapons.

When they adhere to Boudreau’s system, the Caps make it difficult for opposing teams to create scoring chances. But when it breaks down or one player misreads the play, the result is Theodore staring at more bad guys than good breaking in on his net.

“Our goalies do get [more] exposed than in other, more conservative systems. This is the way we want to play,” McPhee said. “I remember when Jose first came here he said, ‘I just might have to make more highlight-reel saves then I did in other places.’ He would probably have a better goals-against average and a better save percentage someplace else because other teams play it more conservative. But the bottom line is we’re winning and he’s our goalie.”

Added Boudreau: “I think we’ve given up more breakaways and odd-man rushes this year than my teams have in the past four years combined. It has been great that he’s been able to make the spectacular save.”

Theodore is 4-0 in first-round series and 0-4 in the second round. But these playoffs will be different than any the 32-year-old Quebec native has encountered.

In Theodore’s four playoff appearances - 2002 and 2004 with Montreal, 2006 and 2008 with Colorado - he carried a lower-seeded club to a first-round upset. For the Caps, who haven’t won a playoff series since 1998, that’s a positive.

But all of Theodore’s teams also ran out of steam in the second round - in disastrous fashion.

In 2002, the Carolina Hurricanes drilled Theodore and the Canadiens by scores of 5-1 and 8-2 in the final two games of a 4-2 series win. In the three conference semifinals since, Theodore’s team has been swept each time.

“Your goalie has to make some stops, but that is it - it is also on the other players to help him out. We’ll see what happens, but what better year to help him break that streak?” defenseman Mike Green said. “We have to be smarter with the playoffs coming. Obviously, we’ve been an offensive, aggressive team all year, but now that the playoffs are here we’ve got to change a mindset a little bit and not leave him out to dry as much.”

The best way to characterize Theodore’s season to this point is incomplete. His relationship with the Caps had a rocky beginning, but since that night in December on Broadway, Theodore has played more like a No. 1 goaltender.

The overall numbers are not great - he ranks ninth in wins among the goalies in this season’s playoffs, but his 2.87 goals-against average and .900 save percentage put him below every No. 1 left except Detroit’s Chris Osgood.

“[He is] hot and cold - there have been stretches where he’s been brilliant, and there have been stretches where he hasn’t been as brilliant as he has to be,” McGuire said.

As Boudreau pointed out, Theodore has earned a reputation as a second-half goalie. His late-season surge in 2002 rallied the Canadiens into the playoffs and earned him the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Last season, he made a similar second-half turn that helped the Avalanche make the postseason.

This Caps team didn’t need any heroics to make the playoffs. But in the 37 games between Dec. 23 and the team’s regular-season finale, Theodore posted a 2.55 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.

And now, the only numbers from this season that will matter are those Theodore accumulates in the coming weeks.

“I was always a guy who said you can’t just look at stats. You can have 40 shots or 20 shots, but it is always about making the big saves,” Theodore said. “Has it been a hard year? I think it has been a great year because when you get the win - that is all you want is [to] go get the win. Obviously, it is hard on the stats because there might be games where you don’t get a lot of shots but lots of good scoring chances. But the best stat is whether or not the team gets the win, and this is the first time I have been [32-17-5].

“If you look at those [37] games, I think those stats have been better and the consistency has been to a level. If you just take those last [37] games and add that rhythm, that is where I want to be. That should be enough for people who follow the team to say, ‘He’s going to get it done.’ ”

• Corey Masisak can be reached at cmasisak@washingtontimes.com.

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