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Jon Dolezar Inside the NHL

Reaching new heights

Theodore believes he's playing better than he did in 2001-02

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  Jose Theodore
Jose Theodore is looking like a Hart and Vezina Trophy candidate again this season.
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

It's hard to imagine Jose Theodore being any better than he was two years ago when he won the Hart and Vezina Trophies.

But the 27-year-old Canadiens netminder believes he has taken his game to a new level this season, one he didn't even reach two years ago when he carried Montreal into the Eastern Conference semifinals after entering the playoffs as the No. 8 seed.

"I have more experience and better communication with my defensemen," Theodore said. "I think I'm better right now than two years ago. It's something that every career is going to have ups and downs. Last year was a real down point and I just knew that I was going to come back strong this year. It's just a part of the game. You never have 10 or 12 strong seasons in a row, you always have ups and downs. And last year was a down one."

Theodore went 20-31-6 with a 2.90 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage last season after posting a 30-24-10 record with a 2.11 GAA and a .931 save percentage in his breakout 2001-02 campaign.

"Everybody knows that Jose is in that same bubble that he was in a couple of years ago," head coach Claude Julien said. "Every good team has a good goaltender. New Jersey won the Stanley Cup because of Martin Brodeur. We are in the situation where we are able to do well because our goaltender is there for us when we need him."

Theodore missed practice on Friday with the flu and is a question mark to start on Saturday against the Rangers, but backup Mathieu Garon has been playing well, too, so he may get the start against New York.

The Habs are 7-1-1-1 over their past 10 games, representing the team's hottest stretch since they won seven in a row late in 2001-02 to qualify for the postseason for the first time in four years. With a 23-16-5-2 record, Montreal is tied for fifth with New Jersey at 53 points, though the Devils have played three fewer games.

"Jose always gives us a chance to win every game," Mike Ribeiro said. "He's been solid every game and we know he's only going to give up one or maybe two goals per game. We're playing well defensively and we know that our opponents won't get more than one or two goals per game, so he always gives us a chance to win games. He's been solid since the beginning of the season."

The Canadiens have been getting it done by taking care of things in their own end, allowing two or fewer goals in nine of their past 10 games.

Theodore is tied for third with 19 wins, is tied for ninth in GAA at 2.02 and is tied for eighth in save percentage at .929. He is tied for second with five shutouts, behind Martin Brodeur's ridiculous total of nine, but he says he doesn't care how many perfect slates he keeps, he just wants his team to win games.

"Even throughout this season I've had up and downs," Theodore said. "But I feel pretty good right now. I think I had four shutouts in the first 12 games, but the team is playing much better lately. And that's a big difference why we are winning some games. The shutouts are just luck. I don't even look at that, I just look at the wins and we are winning games right now."

Heatley's return date yet to be set

Dany Heatley was back on the ice Friday, skating for about 45 minutes with his Thrashers teammates during their morning skate before playing the Hurricanes. But reports that Heatley will see game action as early as Feb. 5 may not be accurate. A Thrashers spokesman said that no date has been set for his return, but it's unlikely that Heatley will be back in the lineup for Atlanta just seven weeks after first skating on Dec. 23.

At Heatley's Dec. 26 press conference, Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said it would be a month before Heatley began practicing with the team. The team expects him to begin full workouts late next week, which would make Waddell's one month estimate from Dec. 26 accurate to within a few days.

But Waddell also said at that time it would be an additional month or two beyond when Heatley started practicing with the team before he is ready for game action. That would put Heatley's window for a possible return date sometime between Feb. 26 and March 26.

It would be great to see Heatley back by Feb. 10, since that would allow him to make his return in his hometown of Calgary, but the Thrashers won't rush him. And while it's certainly not impossible that Heatley's rehabilitation timetable has been pushed up, a late February or early March return date is a lot more realistic.

Worth noting

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported Thursday that Philips Arena will host the 2005 NHL All-Star Game, barring a lockout, of course. ... NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow had dinner and went to Tuesday's Rangers-Islanders game together, but their reportedly wasn't much talk about the collective bargaining agreement. ... Dave Andreychuk became the 25th player in NHL history to reach 1,300 points on Thursday with his 622nd career goal. ... Brett Hull's goal drought is at a career-worst 17 games. ... Peter Forsberg has five goals and 12 assists in 10 games since returning on Dec. 27. ... After taking down Vancouver 3-1 on Thursday, the Sharks have won nine of the past 12 against the Canucks. ... After a 3-3 tie on Thursday, the Rangers are 1-21-13-1 against the Devils since Feb. 17, 1997. ... Felix Potvin's shutout of the Sabres on Thursday was Boston's first shutout in Buffalo since April 4, 1993. ... Former ECHL forward Harold Hersh is among the 25 men trying to win Meredith Phillips' heart on The Bachelorette. ... And speaking of showbiz, Islanders head coach Steve Stirling told the Calgary Sun about his appearance as an extra in Slap Shot. ... The Professional Hockey Writers Association is conducting a charity auction on eBay to benefit Washington Times writer Dave Fay in his battle with cancer. Among the items up for bid are signed sticks from Nikolai Khabibulin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Derek Morris and Teemu Selanne, as well as signed jerseys by Sergei Fedorov, Cammi Granato, Scott Hartnell, Nicklas Lidstrom and Tyler Wrights. But the crown jewel is the autographed jersey that cancer survivor Paul Stewart wore while refereeing his 1,000th NHL game on March 15, 2003. Please help out a great cause by bidding on these items.

Rumor mill

If Darryl Sutter opts to step down after this season as the Flames' head coach to focus on his work as general manager, it's considered a given that he will hire younger brother Brent, currently the head coach of the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL, to replace him. ... The Red Wings are interested in Blackhawks center Alexei Zhamnov, but with injured players Derian Hatcher, Darren McCarty and Steve Thomas all expected back before the trade deadline, Detroit general manager Ken Holland won't be forced to make a move because he knows he'll be adding talented players back in the lineup before the playoffs. ... The Senators have cut Radek Bonk's ice time, and his status as an impending restricted free agent makes him a strong candidate to be moved, especially if Mike Fisher can ever get completely healthy. ... The Panthers are interested in adding a defenseman, and could dangle Niklas Hagman or Kristian Huselius in the hopes of getting either Eric Brewer or Jason Smith from the Oilers.

Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.

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