Not often does a team with genuine Stanley Cup ambitious get this deep into the season without declaring a clear-cut No. 1 goaltender. Journeyman Brent Johnson (11-5-2) seemed ready to claim the mantle twice - he had a four-game winning streak in early November and a five-game winning streak in early December - before a hip injury stalled his momentum.
Jose Theodore, the 2002 league MVP, is currently the hot hand with five straight victories, a promising turnaround from an awful stretch that began in training camp and lasted two months into the season. Like Johnson, he also nursed a sore hip in December.
"Early in the season I wouldn't say I was bad, just maybe a little inconsistent," said Theodore, who signed a two-year, $9 million deal as a free agent from Colorado. "I was having a couple of good games and then I had a bad game."
Enough bad games that, despite his current streak, Theodore (13-6-1) ranks 41st in the league in save percentage (.892) and 35th in goals against average (2.98). His winning run began with one of his worst periods of the season: three goals on five shots against the New York Rangers on Dec. 23. Theodore was pulled from that game but came back because Johnson was still dealing with the sore hip as well as a cold, and the Capitals rallied to win 5-4.
Theodore hasn't lost since, allowing only six goals on 103 shots with scores of 3-2, 4-1, 4-2 and 2-1.
"It's fun to have the chance to show character and show you can bounce back," Theodore said. "That's something I always took pride in."
Theodore said he will start Tuesday against the Flyers, but that doesn't mean Boudreau has moved him permanently to the head of the class. Five games is far too small of a sample size.
"Things can change so quickly in this business," Boudreau said. "Whereas a week ago you're saying, 'What's going on with the goalies?' Now we're all saying, 'Wow, goaltending is playing pretty well."'
The Capitals have been playing the who's-the-goalie game since last season's trade deadline, when they acquired Cristobal Huet. He supplanted longtime favorite Olie Kolzig during the stretch run that put Washington into the playoffs, but left for a big contract at the end of the season. Kolzig, unhappy over his demotion, also left over the summer.
This year, the stakes are higher. Ovechkin and the high-scoring Capitals can win all the games in the world with offense during the regular season, but it's goaltending that takes a team to the Cup. Boudreau himself pointed out Monday that the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP is usually the goalie.
"It starts from the goaltending out," Boudreau said. "When they're playing well, the rest of the team has more confidence."
If Theodore starts to slump again, and if Johnson can't take advantage when given another chance to start, there's a chance the Capitals could make a deadline-day goalie trade for the second straight year. Another possibility is goalie-of-the-future Simeon Varlamov, who went 2-0 in his first NHL action when called up from the minors after Theodore's hip acted up last month.
But Theodore is in a groove, and he wants to render moot any talk of a Plan B or C.
"When you sign with a new team, you want to show them that they didn't make a mistake," Theodore said. "You want to show everybody that you're capable. ... I knew that everything would fall in order, and right now I feel like I could make a difference every night."