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Original Issue

Pressure Point In trying to live up to his hero's status in Montreal, league MVP Jose Theodore is off to a poor start

After practice last Friday, Canadiens goaltending instructor
Roland Melanson took a knee at center ice next to his prized
pupil, Jose Theodore. Melanson then delivered a 10-minute
monologue that he would later sum up in one word: Relax. Through
Sunday, Theodore, who won the Hart and Vezina trophies last
season, had an .833 save percentage, a number that would be sweet
if it were Barry Bonds's slugging percentage, but it was close to
100 points below the average Theodore put up last season and
ranked 55th in the NHL.

Early in the season he looked lost in playing the angles,
struggled to hold his post on the short side and was slow to read
plays, which caused him to overreact on scoring chances. "When
I'm on top of my game, I'm a half-second ahead," says Theodore,
who on the night before Melanson's pep talk was beaten four times
on 14 shots before being yanked in a 6-2 loss in Philadelphia.
"Right now I'm not reading situations as well as I should." Coach
Michel Therrien allowed Theodore to do remedial reading from the
bench on Saturday night, starting Jeff Hackett in a 5-3 victory
over the Senators.

The larger question was not of poor angles but of misplaced
focus. "In this city we always want our heroes--the Rocket, Guy
Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Jacques Plante--and Jose was a hero here last
year," Melanson says. "He's the type of guy who doesn't say no
easily, and maybe he was overloaded during the summer, trying to
please everyone."

Theodore didn't exactly make the rounds of the rubber-chicken
circuit, but he did film commercials, attend the ESPYs and
participate in Quebec's St. Jean Baptiste celebrations and Canada
Day festivities. He also signed a new contract, a three-year deal
worth $16.5 million plus bonuses. The weight of the trophies, a
contract that makes him the highest-paid player in team history
and his status as the cornerstone of the fabled franchise would
be a burden for any 26-year-old, even one as grounded as

But the Canadiens' situation isn't dire. Theodore is too talented
to be a one-year wonder like Jim Carey, who won the Vezina with
the Capitals in 1996 but was out of hockey three years later.
Hackett is a luxury item, a $3.6 million backup who has been a
No. 1 goalie and probably will be someplace else by the March
trade deadline.

Having recovered from the string of injuries over the past two
years that thrust Theodore into the spotlight, Hackett has been
formidable in stealing a win in Detroit on Oct. 17 and robbing
Mats Sundin in overtime to preserve a 2-2 tie against Toronto two
days later. After making 45 stops, including two on breakaways,
against Ottawa, the 34-year-old has given Montreal five of a
possible six points in the three matches he has started. Almost
as important, Hackett, an unrestricted free agent after the
season, has increased his trade value, a major benefit for a team
that is spending $8.6 million this season on goaltending.

COLOR PHOTO: PAUL CHIASSON/AP After a 1-3-1 start, Theodore was given time on the bench to collect himself.