Jose Theodore’s first visit to Madison Square Garden this season was not pretty, but it turned out to be a turning point for the 32-year-old Capitals goaltender and for his Washington teammates.
In his Dec. 23 start at MSG, Theodore was nicked for three goals on just five shots in 11:15 of first period action to put Washington in a 3-0 hole. He was pulled in favor of backup Brent Johnson, who was ailing physically (with a hip ailment that would require surgery later in the season) and was unable to continue after his first period relief effort.
With no other options, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau put Theodore back in goal to start the second. The Caps goalie gave up another tally to make it 4-0 Rangers, but he shut the door the rest of the way. Washington authored an improbable comeback with five unanswered goals, making an unlikely winner of Theodore in that game.
"I was looking at the goals in my head," Theodore told reporters after that game. "The way the plays kind of happened, I wouldn't do anything differently. I was just trying not to get down on myself. I was just thinking, 'Do the same thing and it's going to pay off.'
"In the second I made a couple of saves, and the confidence kicked in."
It kept kicking in the rest of the season, too.
When he skated to the bench in favor of Johnson midway through the first period that night, Theodore brought some rather ugly numbers with him. He was 8-6-1, but with a decidedly mediocre 3.40 GAA a save pct. of just .878.
Beginning with the second period of that Dec. 23 game in Manhattan, the Caps have seen a decidedly different Theodore since. He has gone 24-11-4 with a vastly improved 2.63 GAA and a .909 save pct. since. In 38 starts since that Dec. 23 game, Theodore has lost consecutive starts in regulation only twice, and has not lost more than two starts in a row. That level of consistency bodes well at playoff time when a bad run of goaltending starts can spell the end of a season for even the most stalwart contenders.
Also, Theodore is 17-9 lifetime in first-round playoff series games. His .654 winning pct. in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is tied for the highest among all active goaltenders with 10 or more wins. Theodore has won all four of his first-round playoff series in his career.
The Caps will need Theodore to play at his usual first-round level, but they’ll need more than that. Washington’s attack will need to be deep and diverse, as it was in the games leading up to season’s end. At one point during the season’s last handful of games, the Caps scored 20 consecutive goals without getting a tally from Alex Ovechkin
Expect the Rangers to do their best to contain Ovechkin and fellow “Young Guns” Alexander Semin
, Nicklas Backstrom
and Mike Green
. If they are successful to any extent in that mission, Washington will need offensive contributions from a second wave of players including Brooks Laich
, Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov, Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr and Tom Poti
“In the playoffs, you don’t have one player or two players,” says Ovechkin. “You have the whole team. All your team has to play hard and do better things than they do in the regular season. I think everybody understands that. We have pretty good players.
“In the playoffs, it’s a big difference. It’s going to be not me, not Sasha, not Greenie and Backie,” says Ovechkin, referring to fellow “Young Guns” Alexander Semin
, Mike Green
and Nicklas Backstrom
, respectively. “It’s going to be the whole team. It doesn’t matter who. Last year, you remember Brash scored a goal, Stecks scored a goal, Flash, Fehrise. It’s a big time for everybody.”
The Caps’ special teams have been strong of late. The power play clicked near 30% and the penalty killing corps was above 85% over the season’s final 16 games.
Washington may not be able to count on its power play as much as it did at some stages of the regular season. Games are generally called a bit tighter in the postseason, so the Caps can’t count on getting a lot of power play opportunities in the postseason.
Furthermore, New York boasts the league’s top penalty killing unit with a kill rate of 87.8% during the regular season. Heading into the playoffs, the Rangers have not allowed multiple power play goals in a remarkable 29 straight games. New York has killed 89.8% of opposing power plays in those 29 contests.
The Rangers also feature goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, generally considered among the three or five best netminders in the business. Lundqvist won a career-high 38 games during the 2008-09 regular season, and he is 8-1 in opening round games over the last two springs.
Although New York has no skaters among the league’s top 30 regular season scorers and no players with as many as 60 points, the Blueshirts do have five players with 20 or more goals, the same number the Capitals have.
With a late season coaching change that brought in John Tortorella to replace Tom Renney and a few trade deadline personnel changes, the Blueshirts effectively remade their team, adding some grit and becoming a more difficult team to play against. New York navigated its way through a difficult late-season schedule, going 12-6-1 in its final 19 games to nail down a playoff berth.
This is the Rangers’ fourth straight postseason appearance, and they’ve moved past the first round in each of their last two playoff entries. New York’s last Stanley Cup title came 15 year ago this spring, and that is the Blueshirts’ only championship since 1940. This year’s team doesn’t resemble the 1993-94 bunch very much, but Lundqvist is the team’s wild card. He is certainly capable of swiping a series, or two.