Théo is verbal shorthand for José Théodore, the Capitals goalie who was a matinee idol in Montreal when he won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2002 but has been reviled in this city since former general manager Bob Gainey dumped him on Colorado two teams ago. The fans here were hoping to crawl between his ears in his first playoff start back in his home province, but after the Canadiens scored on their first two shots in Game 2 to drive Théodore to the bench -- he has been pulled in four of his past seven playoff games -- his status as a starter for Game 3 was in grave doubt.
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau never said that Théodore would not be in the net Monday, but those extra 20 minutes on the ice at the end of the morning were non-verbal communication. The 21,273 filtering into Bell Centre had to content themselves by derisively chanting the goalie's name during warm-ups, which might be a first even here.
Even talking to people within the Capitals organization, Boudreau could not articulate why he was going with his other goalie, Semyon Varlamov, who ended up with the Game 2 overtime win. No statistical argument. Nothing ... except that he thought Varlamov gave the Capitals a better chance to win the match.
Score one for a coach's intuition.
Varlamov made 26 saves as the Capitals buried the Canadiens 5-1 in the first lopsided game of the 2010 NHL playoffs. Washington's porous defense now was solid, its poise admirable, especially compared with the unraveling Canadiens, who took a misconduct and an unsportsmanlike penalty in the second. (Said Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges, "We lost our composure." No kidding.)
Not everything is perfect in CapsWorld -- the vaunted power play is 0-for-14 in the series, prompting Boudreau to say, "We suck" -- but Washington, the NHL's best road team, grabbed the series by the throat.
Since returning later in the season -- he played only 10 games after sustaining a groin injury early in December -- Varlamov gave his most complete performance. He was especially sharp in the first period before the four-goal Washington deluge in the second, making a pad save on Brian Gionta after he had stepped around Ovechkin on a Capitals power play and a point-blank save later on Benoit Pouliot. He is a large, athletic goalie who does not have the sense of entitlement of his veteran counterpart, which is part of his charm. Just like last year when Varlamov, then a rookie, got the net after Théodore was benched for Game 2 against the Rangers, he has now earned the right to carry the dashing Capitals as far as their attack will take them.
Suddenly the Canadiens are the team with the goaltending issue.
Carey Price hopped off the bench with 8:33 left in the second period after three goals slithered past Jaroslav Halak on six shots. These were not awful, oatmeal-soft, avert-your-eyes goals, but they all lit the goal lamp the same fiery red. Boyd Gordon scored on his own rebound on a two-on-one shorthanded break, Brooks Laich threaded a wrister through a thicket of players and, finally, Eric Fehr cashed a rebound after a Laich shot off a Halak rebound that was so juicy it practically dribbled down his chin. Halak had looked nervous the final week of the season when the Canadiens limped into the eighth playoff spot, and the jitters seemed to return in Game 2. He now has given up seven goals on his past 27 shots. After supplanting Price, the 2009 All-Star Game starter, as Montreal's favorite son, Halak had played himself into the role of redheaded stepchild in about seven minutes.
(Column interruption. In our playoff preview, we suggested the following fun bet: Which of these teams would first turn to its backup goalie? The Capitals won, but after a little less than 2-½ games, both teams had peeked behind Door No. 2.)
Now Montreal coach Jacques Martin has to recommit to Price, which is not necessarily a bad thing even if Ovechkin welcomed him to the game about five minutes after the goalie's entry with a wicked wrister. (Price would allow two goals on 23 shots.)
Martin would rather tell you his PIN number than his starting goalie for Game 4, but time is short for a team that might have squandered its best chance for an upset when it blew a three-goal lead and a one-goal advantage in the dying minutes of Game 2 regulation.
"It felt good to be in there, feeling the puck," Price said. "It's been a while."
Price, who started only four games after the Olympics and won just one, now has regained the exalted status he once held in an organization that tabbed him with a rare high pick, fifth overall in the 2005 draft. If Price has a little luck and shows lot of skill, the city of two million hockey coaches might learn to love him as much as they once loved Théodore.