Thanks to goalie Jos� Th�odore's heroics, surprising Montreal looks playoff-bound
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 Jos� (pronounced joe-SAY) Th�odore will be the reason. In his fifth NHL season Th�odore, 25, has back-stopped 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 Jos� and the pussycats.
After stopping 34 shots in a 3-1 victory over the Senators on Sunday, Th�odore (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-Th�odore has thrived under a heavy workload. No stretch has been better for him than the last month: Since March 8 Th�odore had appeared in 16 consecutive games and allowed 1.68 goals per game while amassing a .949 save percentage.
Th�odore 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 Th�odore often worked on drills privately with Tretiak, and both worked as instructors for him years later. Brodeur and Th�odore, 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, Th�odore 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]," Th�odore 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 Th�odore'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 Th�odore had a 257 goals-against average and demonstrated that he could be a cornerstone player. This year coach Michel Therrien built his club around Th�odore, 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 Th�odore, 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 be fine."
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.