A dozen years ago, a 20-year-old goaltender named Jose Theodore stepped in for the Montreal Canadiens during a Stanley Cup playoff series despite minimal experience. Sound familiar?
As the starting goalie for the Washington Capitals this season, Theodore was benched for talented rookie Simeon Varlamov, who was 20 at the time and appeared in just six games all year, after the Caps lost Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against New York.
“It’s a new situation for me,” Theodore said. “I was on the other side when I was younger.”
During the 1997 playoffs the Canadiens fell behind 3-0 to New Jersey and replaced Jocelyn Thibault with Theodore, a rookie who played in 16 games. Theodore had 56 saves in a 4-3 triple-overtime win in Game 4, generating buzz in the hockey world. But the Canadiens lost Game 5, and it was a few years until a more seasoned Theodore got the job full-time.
The Caps lost Game 2 to the Rangers with Theodore on the bench. But Varlamov played well, and he continued to excel as Washington went on to take the series in seven games and beat Pittsburgh in Game 1 of the Eastern semifinals Saturday. Barring something unforeseen, Varlamov is the Caps’ starter for now and beyond.
What that means for Theodore is unknown. He signed as a free agent last summer and has another year left on his contract. For the short term, he is playing the unfamiliar and uncomfortable role of backup.
“I do a lot of extra work on the ice to stay in focus and stay ready,” he said. “In this business, you’ve got to be ready. You never know what’s gonna happen. It’s our job as professionals to be ready to play in any situation.”
Caps goalie coach Dave Prior said Theodore has responded as he expected.
“For sure, it’s frustrating to be watching and recognizing that you have a good team here, a team that hopes to go deeper in the playoffs,” Prior said. “But I have to say, he’s had a great attitude and he’s been very supportive. He’s been in Varly’s shoes. He’s come from the other side of it. … But it’s important now, whether it’s through injury or a lack of success on the team’s part, that he’s ready to step in. So he’s been very focused.”
Prior said Theodore is helping in other ways, including scouting and giving tips on opposing goaltenders.
“I talk to him because he has a wealth of experience,” Prior said.
Forward Brooks Laich, who engages in a spirited competition during practice to try to put the puck past Theodore, understands what the veteran is going through and respects how he is handling it.
“Obviously, Jose’s situation is not easy,” Laich said. “He wants to be a starter. But he hasn’t let whatever he’s dealing with away from the rink… it hasn’t come in here. He’s working hard. It’s still hopefully a long playoff. [Varlamov] has played fantastic, but you never know what could happen.
“It’s the same with the other guys who are out of the lineup. You see Michael Nylander out there working hard, staying sharp in case he gets back in there. Jose’s doing the same thing.”
Theodore gave up four goals on 21 shots during the Game 1 loss to the Rangers and immediately blamed himself. Coach Bruce Boudreau did not argue. But Theodore also noted that “in the playoffs, you bounce back.” After hinting that Theodore would start Game 2, Boudreau made the surprise decision to go with Varlamov. Prior had lobbied for Theodore to get another chance.
“There was no sort of discussion between me and Theo that his performance wasn’t what it had to be,” Prior said. “He already offered that to the press. It wasn’t a case where he thought he played well and his teammates came up short. I knew he’d be very determined to get it right the next opportunity. I knew his head was in the right place, and I do have a lot of confidence in him.
“I said to Bruce in no way was I arguing against Varlamov,” Prior said. “For me, it was a win-win situation. Somebody’s gonna play. You just want that guy to play well. It was more a case that I knew his head was in the right place and he brings a lot of experience and he was the No. 1 goaltender. … But he’s been around. Theo understands the game. That’s not a problem. I don’t think you’d find a day here where he’s feeling sorry for himself. He knows it’s part of the job.”