Sunday, March 28, 2010

Jose We Can See

Even as the Washington Capitals have been the dominant team in the East this season and are in control of the race for the President's Trophy, one concern has always lingered: Do they have the goaltending to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup?

Well, there's something to be said for having the ability to simply outscore your opponents on an almost nightly basis. The Caps consistently have shown the ability to do just that, easily leading the league with 289 goals and a plus-80 differential. The next closest in those categories are Vancouver at 244 and Chicago at plus-52. But, at the end of the day, history shows that defense and goaltending can overcome scoring come springtime.

Those who have watched Jose Theodore on a nightly basis during his - and the team's - fantastic run that has seen Washington record at least a point in 26 of the last 29 games don't seem as concerned as the rest of the world, however. There's no question that Theo's tenure in D.C. got off to a rocky start 18 months ago with some bad goals allowed and generally inconsistent play, but on Wednesday night during another epic tilt against the Penguins, something was heard for the first time during his stint in Washington: the chant of "Theo! Theo!"

Unfortunately a goal from Jordan Staal soon followed to tie the game at 3, but after surrendering a pair of goals in the shootout, Theodore stonewalled Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz to allow the Alex's - Ovechkin and Semin - and surprise shooter Mike Knuble to rally and steal the win. For the night Theodore finished with 39 saves, many of the spectacular, game-saving variety. His performance was enough to earn the superstar-filled contest's second star, yet the most telling indication of where Theodore stands with his teammates came after the shootout game-winner. Instead of mobbing Knuble, the Caps sprinted off the bench to congratulate their netminder.

"He's playing with so much confidence right now," Caps defenseman Shaone Morrisonn said of Theodore after the Pittsburgh win, "and that allows us to play with confidence at both ends of the ice."

Added Bruce Boudreau, a man of few words when it comes to his goaltenders: "He's playing great."

Still not convinced? Then take a look at this. Theodore is 17-0-2 with a 2.42 GAA and a .927 save percentage since Jan. 13. He has won his last seven starts, recording a 1.95 GAA and .937 save percentage during that span, and his 19 consecutive appearances without a regulation loss is a club record.

In recent years the knock on Theo has been his lack of consistency. Remember, though, that this is a former Hart and Vezina winner, so he has shown an ability to perform at a high level over an extended period of time. More recently he has shown that in short spurts he can still be one of the best in the game. Suffice to say that 19 games without a regulation loss is more than a short spurt.

And supposing that Theodore does have a lapse in concentration on occasion, he has by far the league's best offense to help overcome that. Sounds very similar to the formula that made the Edmonton Oilers pretty successful in the late '80s, doesn't it?

Grant Fuhr fashioned a Hall of Fame career, one that prompted Wayne Gretzky to at one point call him the greatest goaltender of all time, by making the key save - not EVERY save. A look at Fuhr's numbers during the Oilers' cup years reveals the following: In Cup year number one, 1984, Fuhr was 30-10-4 with one shutout, a 3.91 GAA and a .883 save percentage. 1985 saw him go 26-8-7, 3.87, .884. In 1987 he was 22-13-3, no shutouts, 3.44 and .881. And finally, in 1988 - his best year - Fuhr was 40-24-9, 3.43 and .881 en route to capturing the Vezina Trophy.

Sure, that was a different era with more offense, smaller pads, etc. But a closer glance shows that the league's top GAAs during those years were 2.66, 2.66, 2.81 and 2.36, respectively. Fuhr didn't make EVERY save, but he did make the big saves - and that's exactly what Theodore has been doing now for several months. Of course, we are talking about one of hockey's all-time great dynasties when referring to the Gretzky- and Messier-led Oilers, but the Caps are in the midst of the type of dominant offensive season that characterized those clubs.

On top of that, the Caps' defense as a whole has tightened up in recent weeks, allowing three or fewer goals in seven of their last eight and eight of their last 10 outings. A big part of that has been the superb play of rookie call-up John Carlson, the hero of the U.S. Juniors’ gold medal victory, and the improved play of Mike Green in his own end. Morrisonn has really stepped up his physical play, which is something that has sometimes lacked among the team’s d-men in the past. He led the Caps with nine hits vs. Pittsburgh. Jeff Schultz is second in the league in plus-minus, and quietly has become one of the NHL's most dependable players in his own end, and Tom Poti continues to make positive contributions at both ends of the ice.

So, those who say the Caps are not built for a deep playoff run, might want to look a little closer. They've got the game's best offense, and it's not even close. The defense is coming together, and their goaltender seems to be driven by something greater than wins and losses.

In August Theodore's two-month old son died tragically, leaving the Caps' netminder understandably heartbroken. In a recent Washington Post interview the emotional Theodore spoke out for the first time about the situation and admitted that he struggled to focus early in the season and was unable to round into top form while playing sporadically behind red-hot Russian goaltender Semyon Varlamov. But an unfortunate injury to Varlamov thrust Theodore back into the spotlight, and the team's powerful offense allowed him the margin of error he needed to fine-tune his game. More playing time allowed him to focus more on the game and less on the tragedy.

The end result? Theodore is on top of his game, playing often enough to stay in the groove and motivated by the loss of his son. He has started a foundation called Saves for Kids to help raise money for the neonatal kids’ intensive care unit, where he spent so many difficult hours, at Children's National Medical Center in Washington. Every save, win and shutout means more money is going to help prevent others from experiencing the same heartbreak that he and his wife Stephanie Cloutier lived through.

Something special is happening in D.C. right now, and it's not about the Alex's, the ridiculous amount of goals being scored or Rockin' the Red. No, it's about a once-spectacular goaltender who was weathered personal and professional ups and downs to return to his all-star form.

Jose Theodore is the Capitals' playoff goaltender. Period.

A year ago that left doubts in the minds of fans and experts alike, but what a difference a 12 months can make. There 10-12 playoff-caliber teams – if not more – that would be thrilled to have someone playing at Theo's level in net heading into the postseason. The Caps' perceived weakness in reality is a strength at the moment, which may once and for all allow them to realize the dream that has eluded the franchise for the past 35 years.

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