For most of the season, the Washington Capitals No. 1 goalie position has been a revolving door. Really, since Semyon Varlamov took over for Jose Theodore in the first round of the playoffs last season against the New York Rangers
, the position has been open.
Coming into training camp, Theodore stated it was his.
Then, out of the gate, Varlamov wrested the mantel away, going 12-1-3 (2.21, .924) before injuring his groin, then injuring his knee while on a rehab assignment. That was a month ago, and the young Russian has taken the last two days off from skating in his most recent rehab.
"Of course I am [frustrated]. I haven't played [in the NHL] for more than a month. How is this possible for a 21-year-old to get a nagging injury that won't heal? It's not the time in my career when I am supposed to get injury-prone."
The "other" kid goalie, Michael Neuvirth, took his turn at No. 1 for a couple of weeks, adding to Theodore's frustration. But the team had no where else to turn at that point.
Theodore needed a day off earlier in the season for personal reasons, and it's really quite remarkable he hasn't needed more this season. No one would wish the heartache of losing a child on anyone, as Theodore and his wife did over the summer, and it's pure speculation that the mental health day was centered around that.
Upon returning from the absence, Theodore did not play well, prompting the move to Neuvirth. And the 21-year old turned in several good performances, pushing Theodore further down the organization's depth chart and into an afterthought for many fans.
The nadir perhaps was after a Dec. 27 practice, when Theodore snapped a stick in frustration as he left the ice surface at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, and volunteered to reporters that he "just works here."
He was introspective the next day, as he told the Washington Post .
"We have three good goalies and if you want to play, the guy who is not playing up to the way he can, he's not going to play," said Theodore, who had not played in a span of four games at that point. "If I want play more games, I have to play really well. It's the same for all three goalies."
Neuvirth would be coach Bruce Boudreau's go-to man for a couple more weeks. But back-to-back starts against Tampa Bay
, where he surrendered four goals in the first 15 shots in both contests, left Boudreau looking for answers.
And he found them in the veteran he's had all along: Jose Theodore.
Since taking over for Neuvirth in the second period of the Florida game, Theo has led the Caps to four straight victories, including shutting out Florida on 15 shots to allow his teammates to climb all the way back and win a contest they trailed 4-1 in.
Theodore was nothing short of superb against the Red Wings
. He stopped 44 of the 46 shots against him, many in spectacular fashion.
In his last four games, he has saved 117 of the 123 shots he's seen, a .951 save percentage.
After the game last night, Theodore said he's maintained his confidence throughout the whole ordeal. "[My confidence] is pretty good, but I never try to get too high or too low on myself," he said after the game. "When I wasn't playing, my confidence was still pretty good because I was working hard, practicing hard."
So the veteran has played big, just when the team needed him the most. One of the team's 21-year old prodigies can't get healthy and the other was lambasted in his last two starts.
And with Varlamov unavailable to his team for at least a couple more weeks, it's quite possible Theo will have to be the man up until the Olympic break, which then very quickly brings us up to the March 3 trade deadline.
Can the former Vezina and Hart trophy winner continue his recent hot stretch and be the goalie this team needs him to be? Or will a regression—sometimes as simple as one bad goal—destroy the confidence Theodore's built, triggering new cries to GM George McPhee to find a capable veteran goalie?
It's an interesting conundrum, and the next couple of weeks will go a long way into giving us, and McPhee, the answer.