Theodore ready to prove critics wrong
What matters is how the Washington Capitals netminder responded.
"Tomas who? Jagr?"
"No, Plekanec," one of the reporters mobbed around Theodore blithely explained.
"Oh, Plekanec. OK. I thought you meant Jagr."
With still another day to wait before the opening game of the first-round series between the runaway NHL regular-season leaders from Washington and the eighth-seeded Canadiens, it was a juicy bit of trash-talking that had reporters in both hockey-mad cities scrambling.
But in that moment, with his deft slice and dice of Plekanec (who, as talented as he is, bears little resemblance to his Czech countryman Jagr), Theodore offered us something more than a shot across the bow. In that moment, Theodore suggested slyly to much of the hockey public that perhaps we've had him wrong all along.
Here's the thing. If you asked 100 hockey people to identify the one thing that stands in the way of the Capitals winning their first Stanley Cup, or even at least reaching the franchise's second trip to the Stanley Cup finals, we're guessing 95 would cite the team's goaltending. Maybe more.
Because there exists the general impression that Theodore is as delicate as a flower. There is the impression, based on years of watching Theodore rise spectacularly only to fall just as suddenly and precipitously, he somehow lacks the intestinal fortitude to bring his talented Capitals team to the top.
Yet there is something different about the 33-year-old Laval, Quebec, native this season, and we don't mean just because he got off a good one at Plekanec's expense. His body of work over the last half of the regular season certainly suggests there is. Theodore, who was named the Game 1 starter by coach Bruce Boudreau on Tuesday (as though he would name anyone else), has not lost in regulation in 23 straight games. He has a 20-0-3 record with a .922 save percentage over that period.
Perhaps more impressive: according to Tariq El-Bashir of the Washington Post, Theodore has allowed just nine third-period goals on 228 shots during that stretch. Does that sound like a shrinking violet? A delicate soul? If it seems like this Jose Theodore is a world away from the Jose Theodore that was unceremoniously yanked after one playoff game a year ago, it's because he is.
"Yeah, he's completely changed his focus and his mentality. He's so dedicated," top Capitals defenseman Mike Green told ESPN.com Tuesday. "He's in the gym, he's working after practice, before practice, and you know that's what it takes to be where he is right now.
"He's our guy. I know playing in front of him, pucks are being covered, he's making big saves when he has to. He's been fantastic. I feel so comfortable playing in front of him."
The path traveled by Theodore from last spring to now includes something more horrible than losing the No. 1 goaltending job for an NHL team. This past offseason, Theodore lost his infant son as a result of respiratory complications brought on by a premature birth. Chace Theodore was 2 months old.
Can you draw a line between that tragedy and a season of personal triumph? Perhaps.
"Maybe he's playing for something that means a lot to him," Green said. "When you go through tough times, you really learn a lot about yourself, and maybe that's where he is now."
Whatever drives Theodore, this postseason stands as a defining moment for many who believed Theodore's ship had sailed. These coming days and weeks will possibly bring not just wins, but also something like redemption.
"He's been a guy that's said from the beginning, 'OK, last year was last year. If I have to prove myself, I've proved myself my whole life.' And he's going to be proving himself again," Boudreau said. "And he did it in the face of a lot of adversity this year. I give him full credit for everything he's done."
One thing is certain: Theodore has been thinking about these playoffs for a long time.
"For sure. A lot of people counted me out when the season started for different reasons," he said. "It was a big challenge for me just to have a solid season pretty much since training camp. Obviously to have the chance to play in the playoffs ... that's where you want to be, it's in the playoffs, and now it's finally starting. So we'll see."
The fact Theodore will begin this playoff journey against his former team, where he won the Vezina and Hart trophies in 2002 and led the Habs to upset playoff wins over Boston in 2002 and again in 2004 (he also led the Colorado Avalanche to an upset win over the Minnesota Wild in 2008), has merely added a layer of drama to the proceedings.
Yet, Theodore insists playing the Habs provides no special impetus to play well and doesn't add to any nervousness he might be feeling.
"For myself, it doesn't really change the approach. The nets are the same size, the puck is the same size. I've been around," he said.
Back in the day, Washington goaltending coach Arturs Irbe regularly faced Theodore when he was toiling in Carolina and Theodore was "the man" in Montreal.
"We always had a tough time beating their team because for whatever reason Theodore was standing on his head. He was stealing games," Irbe said.
Now that he's been watching Theodore with a more critical eye since joining the Caps' coaching staff this season, Irbe said he sees an old-fashioned goalie that's been able to keep the ups and downs of a long season in balance.
"All we have to do is avoid big downs, large lows, and try to make those highs as high as possible," Irbe said of Theodore. "And I think he has done a really good job of doing that in the second half of the season.
"Sure, there is pride involved and he has gone into this season with a thought that, 'I'm going to prove that I belong, that I'm still the same Jose that you know,' and he wants to win. He's a winner. He doesn't even entertain the idea that he could be beat or that he could lose."
We will find out soon enough if the fragility many imagined to be part of Theodore's DNA has been erased and replaced with resolve.
For his part, Theodore seems most concerned with doing what he's been doing.
"Obviously, it is a good streak," he said. "It's not something you aim for, it just happens. I could have lost a couple of games; we came back, we won, it's pretty much a little bit of luck. The guys played so well. For myself, it's just about not changing a thing [from] what I've been doing for the last couple of months.
"I just can't wait for the first game to start."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.