Thanks to goalie Jose Theodore's heroics, surprising Montreal
Should the Canadiens earn the Eastern Conference's final playoff
berth--through Sunday, Montreal held a five-point lead over the
Capitals with four games to play--goaltender Jose (pronounced
joe-SAY) Theodore will be the reason. In his fifth NHL season
Theodore, 25, has backstopped a mediocre team to the brink of a
surprising postseason berth and has thrust himself into
contention for the Hart and Vezina trophies. There's little
question that the talent-challenged Canadiens (35-29-12-3)
comprise Jose and the pussycats.
After stopping 34 shots in a 3-1 victory over the Senators on
Sunday, Theodore (29-23-10) had the NHL's top save percentage
(.931) and fourth-best goals-against average (2.10), despite
having faced 1,911 shots, second-most in the league. Without the
benefit of a reliable backup for much of the season--veteran Jeff
Hackett had missed 35 games and is sidelined for the rest of the
season with a dislocated left shoulder--Theodore has thrived under
a heavy workload. No stretch has been better for him than the
last month: Since March 8 Theodore had appeared in 16 consecutive
games and allowed 1.68 goals per game while amassing a .949 save
Theodore was a training partner of the Devils' Martin Brodeur,
who is four years his elder, when both were students at Vladislav
Tretiak's Montreal goaltenders' academy in the late 1980s.
Brodeur and Theodore often worked on drills privately with
Tretiak, and both worked as instructors for him years later.
Brodeur and Theodore, fellow Quebecers, stayed in touch during
their early years in the NHL and met in the first round of the
'97 playoffs. Although New Jersey won the series in five games,
Theodore flashed his talent in his postseason debut, stopping 56
shots during a 4-3 triple-overtime win in Game 4. "I remember
when Marty was first called up ['91-92]," Theodore says. "I was,
like, 'Wow, you're in the NHL,' and then a few years later I was
facing him in the playoffs."
That performance revealed Theodore's tremendous promise, but it
took three seasons of shuttling between the NHL and the American
Hockey League before he became consistent enough to stick. In 59
games last year Theodore had a 2.57 goals-against average and
demonstrated that he could be a cornerstone player. This year
coach Michel Therrien built his club around Theodore, using a
trapping defensive system. Montreal gets even more conservative
when it has a lead, icing more often than a baker. The Canadiens'
emphasis on protecting early leads had translated into late-game
success: When ahead after two periods, Montreal was 23-5-3.
"The main thing for us is to play consistently," says Theodore,
who was the 44th player chosen in the 1994 draft. "Any letdown is
going to cost us. If we stick to the system--playing a patient
game, waiting for our chances, playing well in our own end--we'll
Flyers' Goaltending Dilemma
Who Will Be No. 1 in the Net?
Unlike the Canadiens, the Flyers (41-25-9-3, second in the
Eastern Conference through Sunday) have clinched a playoff berth.
Yet unlike Montreal, Philadelphia will enter the postseason with
a question mark between the pipes. Inconsistent netminding has
crippled the Flyers in their recent postseason
appearances--Philadelphia has had a different starter heading into
the playoffs in each of the last six seasons--and this year Philly
enters into the final week of the regular season unsure who its
No. 1 goalie will be. Coach Bill Barber has yet to anoint Brian
Boucher or Roman Cechmanek, who have split time all year. "As a
one-two punch, our tandem has contributed as much as any other
pair," says the 25-year-old Boucher, "but a platoon isn't the way
to go in the playoffs. One goalie has got to carry the team."
Based on the duo's regular-season numbers, the 31-year-old
Cechmanek, who's in his second NHL season, would be the choice.
In 43 games he had a 2.06 goals-against average and a .922 save
percentage, second- and third-best in the league, respectively;
in 40 games Boucher's numbers were 2.42 and .904.
Cechmanek, however, had a high right ankle sprain that sidelined
him almost all of March, and he's just working his way back into
game shape. Also, Cechmanek's playoff resume (a 3.11
goals-against average during the Flyers' six-game opening-round
loss to the Sabres last spring, including an embarrassing 8-0
wipeout in the finale) pales besides Boucher's. As a rookie
during Philadelphia's run to the conference finals two seasons
ago, Boucher had a 2.03 goals-against average.
Barber says he won't name his starter until late this week, but
Cechmanek's recent workload--he'd been in the lineup for three of
the Flyers' five games since returning from the injured list on
March 30--suggested that he'd be named Philadelphia's first repeat
starter since Ron Hextall, in 1996. Says Barber, "We know what
Bouch brings to the table, but he's played a lot lately and I'd
be foolish if I didn't try to get Cechmanek enough games to get
him comfortable again."
Warning to High Seeds
No Easy Playoff Opponents
Earning a high seed in the playoffs rarely amounts to a free
pass: In each of the last five seasons at least one of the top
four seeds has been bounced in the first round, including the No.
1 Blues in 2000 and the top-ranked Devils in 1999 and '98. This
year the possibility of an upset is even greater. In the
bottlenecked West, in which seven points separated fourth place
from 10th as of Sunday, today's division leader is tomorrow's
seventh seed (see: Coyotes last week), and there's no soft draw
when the bottom seeds could include the Blackhawks (40-25-12-1),
Blues (39-27-8-4) and Kings (38-25-11-4).
In the East high-seeded teams may have the misfortune of running
into white-hot goalie Jose Theodore of the eighth-ranked
Canadiens or the two-time defending conference champion Devils.
New Jersey, which reloaded at the trade deadline by adding
forwards Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner, ranked seventh
and was coming on.
"We're going to play a great team in the first round, no matter
what," says center Jeremy Roenick of the Flyers, whose reward for
winning the Atlantic Division and finishing second in the East
may be a first-round date with the Devils. "The league is too
hard these days."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO With an NHL-leading .931 save percentage, Theodore is a contender for the Hart Trophy.
COLOR PHOTO: DAN HAMILTON/VANTAGE POINT
COLOR PHOTO: C. ANDERSEN/B. BENNETT STUDIOS
Who Do You Think Should Be the No. 1 Draft Pick?
MEDICINE HAT TIGERS D
In his third full season in the Western Hockey League, the
6'3 1/2" 206-pounder had career highs in assists (49) and points
(60). The 18-year-old was ranked first among North American
prospects by Central Scouting.
LONDON KNIGHTS LW
In his second full season in the Ontario Hockey League, the 6'3"
188-pounder had career highs in assists (40) and points (72). The
17-year-old was ranked second among North American prospects by
THE VERDICT: For all his skills, Bouwmeester couldn't get the
Tigers into the playoffs in any of his three seasons. We prefer
Nash, who orchestrated the Knights' first-round upset of
top-seeded Plymouth last week. --D.G.H.