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Under Fire

In hockey hotbed of Montreal, critics scrutinize MVP goalie Theodore after he starts slowly

November 09, 2002|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

MONTREAL — All who enter the Canadiens' locker room at the Bell Centre, whether player or pilgrim to hockey's mecca, must pass a massive, shiny black wall that bears the engraved name of every Canadien who has won a significant NHL award.

Among the winners of the Hart Trophy, given to the league's most valuable player, are Hall of Famers Toe Blake, Elmer Lach, Jean Beliveau, Bernard Geoffrion, Jacques Plante and Guy Lafleur. Past winners of the Vezina Trophy, presented to the league's top goaltender, include Plante, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy.

The newest name on those two prestigious lists is Jose Theodore, who last season led the undersized, under-talented Canadiens to the second round of the playoffs and joined Plante and Detroit's Dominik Hasek as the only goalies who have won the Hart and Vezina trophies in the same season.

Whether by chance or design, Theodore's seat is directly across from that impressive wall. When the 26-year-old native of the Montreal suburb of Laval looks up after unlacing his skates, it gleams in the background; as he walks toward the ice, it silently reminds him of the standards he is expected to uphold.

"This is the wall I've been looking at since I was 20," said Theodore, who was a second-round draft pick by Montreal in 1994 but didn't play regularly until the 2000-01 season. "I know the names by heart. To finally look up and see my name is something that is a big steppingstone in my career.

"Sure, it was my dream to win the Vezina when I was a kid. But last year, during the season, I didn't realize I had a chance until after the season. Being able to win those two major awards is something nobody can ever take away from me."

But this is Montreal, where fans and media ask what-have-you-done-for-me-lately in two languages and every lineup change can become the stuff of soap operas. As Theodore works through a bumpy beginning that included giving up six goals in two successive starts against Buffalo and Philadelphia and one victory in his first seven games, Theodore is learning that dreaming is nice, but stopping pucks is better.

By all accounts, Theodore -- who had a 2.11 goals-against average and .931 save percentage last season -- didn't become complacent after signing a five-year, $26.5-million deal in the off-season. But the Theodore of the first month of the season wasn't the sure, inspiring goalie that led the Canadiens to a surprise playoff berth last season. It took a 42-save shutout against the flailing New York Islanders Thursday to improve his goals-against average from 4.06 to 3.53, and to lift his save percentage from a porous .861 to a still less than glorious .886.

He seems to have developed no major flaws besides maybe being a split-second behind plays and being unlucky enough that the puck simply wasn't hitting him, as it would hit a goalie who instinctively gets into position to block shots. He's not the first goalie to lose a bit of his mystique, and he won't be the last. "We have no doubts about him," team captain Saku Koivu said.

But this is Montreal, where every hiccup is treated like a major disorder. And the Canadiens, who play host to the Kings tonight at the Bell Centre, need Theodore to be consistently sharp if they are to earn a playoff berth in the tight Eastern Conference.

"We're looking at a guy who's got a great work ethic," said Coach Michel Therrien, who started backup Jeff Hackett five times in an eight-game stretch while Theodore worked his way back to his old form. "That's one reason he had such a great season last year. He got a start he wasn't looking for, but last week we gave him an opportunity to practice hard and get his game where it's supposed to be.... We're all satisfied he's going in the right direction."

Hackett, 34, believes his young teammate has merely hit a bump in what will be a long and successful road. Early in the season, Hackett said he expected he and his $3.6-million salary would be traded to accommodate Theodore's new $5-million price tag, but he has played too well -- and Theodore too inconsistently -- for Montreal to make a move yet.

"He's not struggling," Hackett said of Theodore, whom he has mentored. "He's played well. Sometimes you get a post, sometimes you don't get a post. In goaltending, you can't be an egomaniac and think you can control everything out there. You need support. You need help from everyone.

"I'm sure there's a couple of games where he didn't think he was sharp. But it wasn't like he was way off his game or way out of sync. It's just little things here and there. He's right there."

Goaltending has been something of a black hole for the Canadiens since a piqued Roy demanded and got a trade in 1995, a mistake the Canadiens paid for until Theodore emerged last season. But until he and they are sure his mastery has returned, he will be bombarded with more questions than pucks.

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