Late in Sunday morning's practice session at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, Semyon Varlamov — the player who was in net at the conclusion of the Washington Capitals' stomach-flipping overtime victory over Montreal on Saturday night — stood in goal at one end of the ice, taking shot after shot from a pair of assistant coaches. José Theodore, the man who began that same game in the net before he was yanked after all of two shots, watched closely from between the faceoff circles. When it was Theodore's turn, he skated toward the goal, bumped goalie gloves with Varlamov and settled in for the same drill.
To hear coach Bruce Boudreau tell it, if the Capitals are to spend any significant amount of time in these NHL playoffs, such swapping between those goaltenders could be commonplace. When the Capitals broke up their brief workout and headed to a film session, Boudreau had not yet announced who would start the pivotal Game 3 on Monday night in Montreal. He wanted to discuss the matter with his coaches. He wanted to watch film of Saturday night's 6-5 victory with his team. And, in all likelihood — with a taut series tied at a game apiece — he wanted to keep the Canadiens guessing.
"I think we said before the series started that if we were going to go anywhere in this, we'd probably have to use both goalies," Boudreau said. "Again, I'm still going to use both goalies. Whether Varly plays Monday or Theo plays Monday, I think they're both going to play again. That's why we've got to keep them sharp."
There are arguments for and against both players. Theodore is a veteran whose strength, Boudreau believes, is putting poor performances behind him and moving on. Varlamov, who turns 22 later this month, replaced Theodore in Game 2 of last year's first-round series against the New York Rangers, and he was a major reason why the Capitals advanced in seven games.
Boudreau's dilemma, though, feels a bit different this year. When he named Theodore the starter for the Montreal series last week, he spoke emphatically about his confidence in the 33-year-old former league MVP, confidence borne from the fact Theodore went 20-0-3 with a 2.58 goals against average and .922 save percentage since Jan. 13. "There is no short leash," Boudreau said Tuesday. That kind of talk is fresh enough that Theodore — who allowed Montreal's first goal to Brian Gionta on a knuckler, and the next one to an unimpeded Andrei Kostitsyn before he was yanked — seemed confident he would return for Game 3.
"I'm feeling good," Theodore said. "Either way, I'll be ready to go, and it's going to be the coaches' decision. But obviously, you always want to have the chance to get back in there and bounce back."
There is, though, a history with Varlamov now, something the young Russian didn't have a year ago, when his pre-playoffs resume consisted of six NHL games. He appears to be recovered from groin and knee injuries that limited his appearances during the season, when he went 15-4-6 with a 2.55 goals against average and a .909 save percentage. Saturday, when he replaced Theodore, he didn't exactly force Boudreau's hand, making 19 saves on 22 shots — a performance that wasn't spectacular, but was good enough to help force overtime, when Nicklas Backstrom's third goal of the night won it for Washington.
On Sunday, Boudreau said his assessment of Varlamov will have more to do with the present than his sterling playoffs a year ago, when he didn't relinquish his spot until the seventh game of the second round, when the Capitals were eliminated by Pittsburgh.
"I just know what I believe in Varly," Boudreau said. "If I had just seen him this year and I hadn't had him last year, it wouldn't have made any difference."
Another difference from a year ago: the city to which the Capitals now travel. Theodore is a native of Quebec. He came up through the Montreal system, made his NHL debut with the Canadiens in 1996, won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP there in 2002, yet was traded away to Colorado in the middle of the 2005-06 season. Theodore's only appearances at Bell Centre as an opposing player have been statistical disasters: eight goals on 44 shots while with Colorado in 2006, and a relief appearance in February in which he allowed four goals on 25 shots. Montreal's fans will, no doubt, be ready to mockingly sing-song their former hero's name should Theodore play Monday night.
"I know they're going to try to distract me, but I take it as motivation," Theodore said. "As players, you want to be in those situations. That's going to be a situation that it's going to be fun to play in, especially."
The rest of the Capitals tried to downplay the goaltender issue Sunday, and it's not unprecedented for a team to toggle between goalies as it advances deep into the playoffs.
"If one guy didn't play well, a different guy step up," star winger Alex Ovechkin said. "It's all about results. It's all about winning right now."
Theodore did not argue with that assessment. "We have one goal in mind here," he said. "It's to win." When he came off the ice after his final drills — leaving Varlamov alone to pantomime saves, sliding from one pipe to the next — Theodore pulled his mask back and perched it atop his head. He headed to a group of fans who pressed up against a gate that separates the players from the public. As he signed autographs, a kid asked if he could have his glove.
"I need it," Theodore said. "I need it."
Whether he would need it Monday night, he did not know at that moment. But Boudreau and the Capitals figure two things: that when Theodore does return to the net, be it Monday or later on, he will be better. And even if the choice is Varlamov for Game 3, Theodore won't publicly complain.
"Throughout the season, sometimes I wanted to play, [and] I didn't play," Theodore said. "But we're all so close on this team that we want to win games, and whatever the coaching staff decides to do, it's for the best of the team and you don't want to be that guy to have a bad or negative thought. I know that I'm always ready to go. … I'm just really confident right now."