Remember the early spring of 2002? Sure you do. The Caps, after their customary slow start, put on a second half surge and were on the verge of claiming the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. In their final 13 games, the Capitals were 9-2-1-1. Alas, they fell two points short of that last playoff spot, a spot that went to the Montreal Canadiens.
One reason the Caps couldn’t sneak in: they got no help. Montreal would not lose. Despite little in the way of offensive prowess (top three goal scorers: Yanic Perreault, Richard Zednik and Oleg Petrov), the Habs reeled off seven straight wins down the stretch to edge out the Caps. Montreal did not score more than four goals in any of those games, and totaled 21 in the seven contests. The Canadiens allowed only eight goals against in the seven games.
The reason: goaltender Jose Theodore. He was in goal for all seven games for the Habs, posting a 1.14 GAA and a .959 save pct. during that run. Two months later, he was standing at a podium in Toronto, collecting both the Hart and Vezina Trophies for his efforts.
Theodore showed up at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Thursday and pulled a new red Caps sweater over his head. When he first takes the ice for Washington this fall, goaltender Theodore will become the first player in Capitals history to sport a sweater with the No. 60 on the back. Theodore, who signed a two-year deal with the Caps last week, came to the District to meet the team’s staff, do some house hunting, collect his new sweater and to field questions from the local hockey media.
The Caps played the Colorado Avalanche – Theodore’s most recent team – at Verizon Center in January and at Pepsi Center in Denver the previous season. Theodore liked what he saw in those games and the other Washington games he’s seen in recent years.
“They have the best player in the league first of all,” declares the Laval, Quebec native. “Watching them the last couple of years, I saw them progress so well. When I saw that things weren’t getting done with [ex-Caps goalie] Cristobal [Huet] I knew there was going to be an opening, so I didn’t want to sign too quick in Denver. I just waited for the spot. That was my first choice. So when the call came I didn’t even want to hear any other team.
“They’re a great bunch of guys; they’re all young. They bring a lot of power, a lot of energy.”
After following Hall of Fame netminder Patrick Roy in the nets in both Montreal and Colorado, Theodore will follow Olie Kolzig in goal in the District. Kolzig was Washington’s starter for the better part of the last 11 years.
In addition to his stellar 2001-02 season with the Canadiens, Theodore had some other fine campaigns with mediocre Montreal teams. But his play began to slip a bit in 2005-06, the first season after the lockout. He rebounded to have a strong 2007-08 season, but many still seem focused on the two seasons before that.
“I’ve got a lot left,” says Theodore. “I’m more experienced now. I think I had some bad years to really make me realize that it is easy to fall down. But then when you do get up you just want to make sure you don’t go [back] there. I’m stronger mentally now and I’m just really happy. I feel like I’m 22 right now instead of 32. I’m excited.”
In Colorado last year, one of Theodore’s former goaltending teammates helped get him back on track. Jeff Hackett and Theodore were teammates for five seasons in Montreal. It was the beginning of Theodore’s NHL career and the twilight of Hackett’s. Hackett spent the last two seasons at the goaltending coach in Colorado.
“Jeff did a lot,” states Theodore. “He saw me play in Montreal. I was playing with him until the year after I won the awards. He saw what I was capable of. Sometimes as a player you forget what you are able to do. He wasn’t getting satisfied easily. He was pushing me to get back to the level where he thought I should be.
“I practiced really hard. I think it started with the focus I had starting last summer. I knew I had to be strong just to show everybody I could bounce back. Jeff pushed me every day. It’s good to see that you have people that still have confidence in you when things aren’t going well. I just didn’t want to let them down and let the organization down. I really think that I’m stronger mentally.”
With Hackett’s help, Theodore enjoyed his best season since 2003-04. He posted a 28-21-3 mark with three shutouts, a 2.44 GAA and a .910 save pct.
“Jeff had a lot of good influence on me when he played,” remembers Theodore. “Even if he was starting I was 21 or 22 as a starter, but when I had a tough time he would take me aside and just help me mentally and help me deal with stuff. He’s the kind of guy who worked so hard that I wanted to do the same thing. He was one guy who knew he wanted to push me even though he was playing against me in a way for the same job.
“He’s one of the big reasons why I turned my game around like that.”
Hackett is not the only goaltender who had a hand in Theodore’s development. Twenty years ago, Hockey Hall of Famer Vladislav Tretiak saw something special in a young boy from Quebec with dreams of being an NHL netminder.
“He was the first real goalie coach I had,” says Theodore of Tretiak. “He had a hockey school [in Quebec]. I went there for the first time when I was 11 or 12 years old. I was all excited meeting him. I remember after maybe a couple of days he took me aside and said – and there’s actually a TV interview of him saying that – ‘For 12 years old, if you keep going you’re going to make it to the NHL and you’re going to play.’ I was 12 years old when he said that and I was so excited. He said that when I was young and I ended up playing in the NHL for 10 years now. He had a big influence on me and he kept following me.
“I remember when I won the Hart and the Vezina he was there. I took pictures with him and the trophies. I went to his school for five years, so I owe him a lot.”
Growing up in Quebec and then playing for the Canadiens, Theodore knew all about the pressures of Montreal.
“I knew the pressure was going to be high, but growing up in Montreal you kind of know what to expect,” says Theodore. “You read the paper when you’re younger, so you know how people react. It was really a thrill when I played my first exhibition game.
“You know sometimes when you win they think you’re going to win the Cup, and then when things go bad they really go bad. I was prepared. That’s why I think at a young age I was able to be a starting goalie because I was already prepared for all the attention surrounding the hockey.”
While Theodore was upstairs in the players’ lounge conducting an on-camera interview on Thursday, Washington defense prospect Karl Alzner
walked in with full gear and his skates on to introduce himself to the new Caps netminder. Alzner was mere minutes away from taking the ice for a development camp scrimmage, but he wanted to make sure he met his new teammate.
He wasn’t the only Washington well-wisher.
“Alex [Ovechkin] called me from Russia; that was nice of him,” says Theodore. “He welcomed me to the team. I could sense in his voice the excitement. I’ve seen him on the ice; he’s really playing with a lot of energy. He seems like a guy who really wants to win. It’s fun to see that as a player.”
As for what he’ll bring to the District this season, Theodore is keeping it simple.
“Just stop the puck,” he says. “That’s pretty much what I need to bring the rest will take care of itself. I want to bring experience, I want to bring consistency. I’m anxious to meet all the guys. I didn’t meet a lot of players yet so I’m anxious for training camp to start.”
Theodore is also expected to bring a sense of calm. It’s the style he’s had for years. He is cool and collected in the cage, and doesn’t usually get rattled when adversity strikes. Those are good qualities for a netminder to have, and those are the qualities that helped him endure the Montreal pressure cooker and to work his way through a couple of tough seasons in Colorado.
Late last season, Theodore put on another surge to get his team into the playoffs. He won six straight games in late February and early March, and then cemented the Avs’ playoff berth by going 5-0-1 in his last six regular season outings.
“It feels good,” he says, of those late season hot spells. “When you get into a rhythm, you know you’re going to go into a game and take care of 90% of winning the game because you know you’re going to allow maybe one goal or two goals. So you know you’re going to win the game.
“I remember during that stretch run [in 2002] I was going to a movie with my girlfriend and my brother and I was looking at the scores and I wanted Washington to lose because it was so tight, so I remember exactly what you’re talking about. Last year in Denver we were fighting for the playoffs and we had a similar stretch when I think we won six or seven in a row at the same kind of time.
“As a goalie, you want to have your best stretches when it really counts, and that’s usually after Christmas.”
This year, Theodore will be on the good guys’ side.
Here’s a blast from the past, the Central Scouting Bureau’s scouting report on a 17-year-old Theodore in the summer of 1994 leading up to the NHL Entry Draft in Hartford. The Canadiens chose Theodore with their second round (44th overall) choice.Personal Profile:
Admires the goaltending style of Hall of Famer Vladislav Tretiak … enjoys challenging shooters and the pressure of the game … is studying sport at CEGEP (pre-college) … enjoys playing guitar and collecting hockey cards … was an award-winning pee-wee baseball athlete … nicknamed Joe and Theo … has one older brother … speaks English and French … had private tutoring from Tretiak in the off-season.
Played for Canada at 1993 Pacific Cup tournament, finishing second overall among goaltenders (4.49 GAA) … finished 1993-94 with a 20-29-6 win/loss record … fifth overall in GAA among QMJHL goaltenders, and fourth overall in save percentage (.885). Central Scouting Report:
Very quick hands and skates … challenges shooters all the time … excellent reflexes … very good concentration … moves very well post to post … very good at handling the puck behind the net … handles rebounds very well – always ready for second and third shot … stand-up goaltender – will use butterfly style to his advantage when puck is in close.