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Theodore Is the Main Squeeze, For Now

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via <a href="http://www.csnwashington.com/gallery_images/624_7849.jpg">www.csnwashington.com</a> (Jan. 6, 2009)
via www.csnwashington.com (Jan. 6, 2009)

"[I]n training camp I said it was the best I felt since the lockout.  Sooner or later, people are going to realize I didn't say that just for fun."  - José Théodore post-game last night.

Well it wasn't entirely clear who would be the #1 netminder for the Washington Capitals heading into the 2009-10 season.  But at least for now, Théodore est #1 à nouveau!

Théodore is putting up the best GAA (2.47) and SV% (.922) numbers since 2003-04, when he won 33 games for Montréal.  Those season-to-date numbers are seventh-best in the league in GAA, and third-best in SV%, for all goalies who have started at least seven games.  He's carried the momentum of a sensational training camp into a strong early season performance, punctuated by a brilliant 41-save performance last night at le Centre Verizón.  Unlike last autumn, where he didn't really establish himself until shutting out the Canadiens in late November.  And, still, #60 won over 30 games in 2008-09.

Whither Semyon Varlamov this season?  Thus far, he hasn't exactly looked like the world class 'tender that emerged to pull the Washington Capitals out of the depths of despair last April against the Rangers, and an iron curtain for at least the first three games of the second-round Penguins series.  Even though he's earned a 4-0 record.  

Besides already noting a propensity to allow goals in bunches, Varly seems to have added, to a troublesome glove hand that dogged him in the Pens series, a greater vulnerability five-hole.  To roughly break it down (and to be clear, these are characterizations born from my own observations) -- of the fourteen goals that Varly has allowed this season, four have been to the stick side, four to the glove side (but only two of those were high:  one tally by Nashville's Shea Weber and the other by Philadelphia's Mike Richards), and six through the five-hole (or approximately 40%).

But Varlamov's performance last spring was wondrously unexpected, and he's still a 21-year old work-in-progress.  So adjustments and small steps backward for greater strides later is exactly what we all should expect at this point.  New goaltending coach Arturs Irbe's work with young Varly may be akin to breaking a few eggs now for a delicious omelet by mid-season.

All of this is why the Caps still have a veteran "bridge" in Théodore under contract for this season to steady the ship when the young charge struggles.  So everything seems to be going according to plan to date, with the team's goalie of the present and goalie of the future scenario.  And should both of them falter, well, Braden Holtby, goalie of the more distant future, is garnering national recognition for his early season play in the Palmetto State, and Michal Neuvirth, who was the Calder Cup playoff MVP last spring, is also a phone call away, though still looking to regain his form.

But could Théodore be more than just a bridge this season?  Could he remain this strong in April, May?  June?  How long can his current success last?  He's 2-0-1 / 2.04 / .939 in his last four starts.  But we've seen similar stretches of stellar backstopping in his post-lockout career, followed by a return to the average.

  • In December of 2006, JT allowed just 11 goals in 5 games, and followed that streak by registering a SV% over .900 in only one game out of the next ten contests, and with a SV% in the .700s in five of those games.
  • Théodore followed up a ten start / 2.18 / .919 January last season with an unremarkable ten start / 2.96 /.906 February.  (Yet his record in each month was identical:  6-3-1.)
  • But his 2007-08 season (his previous contract year, mind you) saw a steady improvement and consistently strong play from January 30 to the end of the regular season, where he allowed three or more GA in consecutive games just once in 27 starts, and allowed two or fewer in 17 of those starts, during that stretch drive to the post-season for Colorado.

For all we know, we could see a complete reversal of fortunes for Théodore and Varlamov by March (or even by next month), with #40 on top and JT wearing the ball cap on the end of the bench.  In any event, Coach Bruce Boudreau has the luxury of going with the hot hand.  And "the lefty" sure is hot right now.