- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

For about seven minutes Saturday, Jose Theodore stood before a media throng and patiently answered questions about the disappointing end to last season, trying to keep his status as the No. 1 goaltender for the Washington Capitals and his desire to win a Stanley Cup.

He was poised and confident with his responses, even managing a joke about “being on the back nine” of his career. Outwardly, Theodore displayed the same demeanor he had from last season. But this isn’t the same as last year or any of his other previous 11 NHL campaigns.

There was only one brief, subtle reference to the tragic death of his infant son, and it is hard to believe that his words - “more than ever, now I realize that hockey is not the only thing in life” - could resonate more for anyone.

“It is something that I am going to deal with the best I can,” Theodore said moments after his media session. “Being around the guys here helps with getting my mind off of things, but it is definitely going to be the biggest challenge for me. I’ve been through some hard stuff, but nothing compared to this. I’m going to tell you as the season goes along, but for now I am just doing the best I can.”

If only those questions about losing his grasp of the starting job in early April to then-20-year-old Semyon Varlamov and being forced to watch the next two rounds of the playoffs were the toughest for Theodore to deal with.

“Jose is a really well-grounded guy, and he obviously went through a heartbreaking experience,” general manager George McPhee said. “Hockey can sometimes be a sanctuary. You can get away from everything else and play. He’s a good character guy and a strong-willed guy, and I am sure he will see his way through this.”

Added teammate Brooks Laich: “From what I’ve seen, our guys haven’t treated him any differently. It is obviously a very tough and trying time, and at times like that you lean on the people around you, and I think that is what Jose is doing.”

While Theodore continues to cope with his wife and daughter, he must also reclaim his place in Washington’s net. Theodore, who turns 33 on the first day of training camp Sunday, won 32 games for the Caps last season and helped the team to a division title.

He yielded four goals on 17 shots in Game 1 of Washington’s first-round series against the New York Rangers, and coach Bruce Boudreau turned to Varlamov. The young goaltender became an instant sensation, and Theodore didn’t play again until Pittsburgh chased Varlamov in Game 7 of the second round.

“It is always tough when you don’t have the chance to redeem yourself,” Theodore said. “It is not like it was in my control. I can’t say I didn’t bounce back. I can’t say I lost the series. I can’t really judge myself on just one game. I’m OK with Bruce’s decision, but to say how it affected my summer - it would have been way tougher if I had stayed in the whole series and lost it or didn’t bounce back.”

There was plenty of speculation about a possible trade in the offseason but not only is Theodore still with the Caps, Boudreau has also bestowed the No. 1 moniker on him again as camp begins. There are still questions about Varlamov’s durability and whether the young Russian can sustain that high level of play at the NHL level. Michal Neuvirth is also hoping to play his way onto the big club’s roster after a fantastic finish with Hershey of the American Hockey League last year.

Fending off two of the top goaltending prospects in the sport is not going to be easy. Now more than ever, Theodore is likely to relish the challenge.

“[Theodore] starts as the No. 1, and the two kids are going to try and take his job,” McPhee said. “That’s basically where we are.”

Added Theodore: “There’s always somebody pushing you. I’ve been in the league, what, 12 years now and I can’t remember ever having a year where there wasn’t somebody pushing me. I know I can’t let down. I have to be consistent and I have to play well because they’re going to be guys that are ready to come in there.”

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

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