Theodore's game, Turin stock on rise

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:01 AM ET

MONTREAL -- If you bumped into Jose Theodore at the local Mac's Milk, you wouldn't even notice him.

He is a wisp of a kid, maybe 5-foot-10, 160 pounds.

On a practice day, the Canadiens netminder is wearing a retro Rolling Stones t-shirt, a ball cap, a couple of days growth and jeans.

His numbers aren't exactly beating people over the head, either. Theodore, in contention for one of the three goaltending spots for the Winter Olympics, sits outside the top 10 NHL leaders in the dual pillars of goals against average and save percentage.

Immortals such as Henrik Lundqvist, Martin Gerber, John Grahame and Nolan Schaefer have garnered NHL shutouts this season. Theodore hasn't blanked a soul.

All of which makes him the perfect goaltender for the Habs, a team that is statistically underwhelming, but unfathomably atop the Northeast Division with 12 wins, just three losses and a pair of overtime defeats.

The Maple Leafs will face Theodore and the Canadiens here tonight.

Superstars win and Theodore has done that, all right. The Habs have won 10 one-goal games this season. Theodore has been between the pipes for nine of them. His 2.83 GAA, .892 save percentage are nicely above the median in the goal-happy NHL.

"The way he is playing lately is the Jose that we know," Canadiens' coach Claude Julien said yesterday. "He has always been good for us. But right now, he's at his best."

Theodore's initial struggles were papered over by the Canadiens' remarkable start. He created some concern early in the season when his teammtes outshot the New York Rangers 40-29 and lost 5-2.

More typical was a game against the Leafs on Oct. 8. He gave up four goals on 20 shots, but the Habs still won 5-4.

"I was giving up some bad goals, but we were still getting the wins which is fun as a goalie," Theodore said. "Even when you're struggling a bit, you're getting the wins."

No longer a passenger, Theodore has given up two goals in regulation in each of his past four starts. His best game was probably Tuesday when he beat the Lightning 3-2. The Habs were outshot 34-19 and Theodore was named the game's first star.

Theodore credits work with goaltender coach Rollie Melanson for the improvement.

"I worked really hard with Rollie on some details. Pucks were getting through my body through the five hole and underneath my arm. I wasn't challenging the shooter the way I normally do. It was just little things, but over the last eight or nine games, I've been happy with where my game is."

"There are lots of top goaltenders in the league who have had their share of issues," Julien said. "We are talking about Martin Brodeur (injuries and an .883 save percentage) and Nikolai Khabibulin (.862) and those kind of guys, so Jose is no different.

"You need to work with those guys and stick with them. I think we worked with Jose long enough that now it's paying dividends."

Theodore's career path has vacillated between giddy heights and corresponding freefalls. A Vezina and Hart winner in 2002, he looked to be the heir apparent to Brodeur as the game's next great goalie. But he followed up his big year with a desultory 20-31-6 campaign before rebounding with a career-high 33 wins before the lockout.

Now, he is on the master list for the Winter Olympics next February in Italy.

Julien has a point about the difficulties other goalies, including Brodeur, have encountered this year. There could be room on Team Canada for a goalie whose most dominant skill seems to be the uncanny ability to win.

"As a young Canadian hockey player, it would be a dream," Theodore said. "I played in the World Cup and it was a really good experience. Hopefully, I can be part of this group."


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