- George Johnson, NHL
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Pinpointing the pivotal position for the Colorado Avalanche as these playoffs approach doesn't require a crystal ball (or a Cristobal, for that matter).
Look no further out than the goal.
Look no further than Jose Theodore.
"Pressure?" defenseman Patrice Brisebois says with a laugh. "I don't think Jose is affected by pressure. The best school for that is to play in Montreal, isn't it?"
The Cambridge or Oxford of expectation, actually.
The Avs are, as usual, loaded with possibilities, so much to recommend them. Joe Sakic continues to defy time itself. There's Milan Hejduk. The intoxicating Alex Tanguay. Rob Blake. Pierre Turgeon. Feisty Ian Laperriere.
What's been missing all season, according to the analysts, is the front-line goaltender that separates the contenders from pretenders every spring.
Which is why Colorado went out and acquired Theodore, who had worn out his welcome in Montreal despite a fractured heel bone sustained during the Olympic break that left him unable to play for 13 games after the trade.
"It's coming," said Theodore, a 2-0 loser to the Northwest Division title-clinching Calgary Flames in his second start for the Avalanche. "You have to get used to each other, especially the communication between the goalie and defensemen.
"It's only my third game here, but we're starting to figure out what we like to do."
What they like to do in Denver is win. They've made rather a habit of it, which is why Theodore is on the spot as the postseason nears.
His new caddy, Peter Budaj, actually has posted better numbers than Theodore this season -- a 2.86 goals-against average and .900 save percentage, compared to Theodore's 3.47 and .879, respectively.
But there's no doubt that it's Jose's show now. They didn't bring him in with another two years at an average of $5.3 million annually to develop piles sitting on a bench.
General manager Pierre Lacroix's gamble that Theodore's arrival can conjure up warm, fuzzy memories of another French-Canadian icon who moved south and west from Montreal (Patrick Roy) is a bold one. Or, as many have suggested, it's just plain foolhardy. Roy, remember, backboned the Avalanche to two Stanley Cups after coming over from the Canadiens, surpassing the legendary Terry Sawchuk to become the winningest goaltender in NHL history. He did it all.
For a former Hart Trophy winner, Jose Theodore still has plenty to prove.
The shadow of St. Patrick isn't something that particularly daunts him, though. If there's one thing Mr. Theodore does not lack for, it's self-confidence.
"I dealt with it for 10 years in Montreal," he said of the Roy specter. "I came in as a young goaltender, and I was compared to Patrick Roy. I'm not Patrick Roy. Nobody is. He's the best goalie ever.
"But I'm still young. Only 29. I had some great years in Montreal. This season was tough. But being here in Colorado is a new start for me. It has a great feel. Obviously, this is a very good team with very good players."
True enough. But whether or not Theodore is able to produce the same sort of magic that helped him win the Hart in 2002 is what will determine whether the Avs can contend for the Western Conference title. Detroit is loaded with ability, Dallas looks like a felicitous mixture of grit and talent and the Flames are armed with the league's best goaltender in Miikka Kiprusoff.
Without an in-form Theodore, the Avalanche are bound to get left behind.
"Jose knows what he can do. He knows he's good," said Brisebois, who also played with Theodore in Montreal. "Maybe I shouldn't say this, but sometimes he does remind me of Patrick Roy. He can make the difference in a game or a series. We were down 3-1 [in the series] to Boston that one year [the 2004 playoffs], and came back to win. He was great.
"We're really happy he can play a few games before the playoffs. I'm sure if you asked him, he'd tell you he's a little rusty. To be off for a month and a half is a long time especially a goalie. Reflexes. Positioning. Timing. You only get those things by playing."
The Habs certainly haven't felt the loss of the heir apparent to Plante, Dryden and Roy too keenly. As Theodore convalesced in Denver, his one-time caddy Cristobal Huet hauled Montreal out of the muck and into a playoff spot. Huet's role in a lengthy winning streak even sparked some wistful, if far-fetched, Vezina Trophy-consideration talk.
No such buzz has surrounded Theodore for quite a while.
Brisebois said escaping the claustrophobic atmosphere of Montreal, where Theodore, as a Francophone goaltender, was under constant surveillance, can only help him relax and regain his maximum form.
"For sure, it'll help," Brisebois said. "Here in Denver, he can focus on his game. In Montreal, there was always the media, the fans, his friends, his family. It's easy to get distracted."
Theodore will receive every opportunity to prove he's what the Avalanche anticipated when they dealt their No. 1 goaltender, David Aebischer, to land him. But the gamble can only be judged by success or failure in the playoffs.
"He's got a clean slate here," promises Avs coach Joel Quenneville. "A fresh start. We have a top goalie now. I was fortunate enough to be part of this organization when Patrick Roy was here.
"Having that goalie you can trust in makes everyone feel safer -- your forwards, your defense -- it just makes such a difference. Everyone can relax and just play."
With the playoffs just around the corner, relaxation may prove to be an elusive luxury. Great goaltending, though, can relieve a lot of the stress.
Those around him in his new digs certainly make a convincing case for Theodore. None of which matters much unless he makes a convincing case for himself starting a week from now.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.