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Thursday, January 31, 2008
When depleted Avs needed a goalie to step up, Theodore has been there

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

DENVER -- Jose Theodore's wildly erratic goaltending stint with the Colorado Avalanche has taken another turn.

This time, it's about his aching back.

Theodore has started 11 consecutive games for a team now without Joe Sakic, Ryan Smyth and Paul Stastny in the lineup, and his play has helped keep Colorado in the Western Conference playoff race. During the stretch, he has a 6-4-1 record, a 1.94 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage.

Jose Theodore
Before suffering back spasms during Wednesday's game, Jose Theodore was 6-4-1 over 11 straight starts for the Avalanche.

It all has led to very tentative speculation that he might be on the verge of salvaging his reputation and landing another big-money contract.

But he left the Avalanche's victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night after two periods with back spasms, and on Thursday, he didn't make the trip to Detroit, where Colorado renews its rivalry with the Red Wings on Friday night before moving on to St. Louis for a Saturday night game.

The Avalanche said in the afternoon that the tests revealed no other major problems, and that he will receive treatment for a minor muscle flareup.

For at least the weekend, though, the Avalanche will go back to Peter Budaj, who had a strong stretch run a season ago while Colorado put together a 15-2-2 streak -- as Theodore watched from the bench.

Maybe none of this should be surprising, because the story of Theodore's stay with Colorado can be summarized with a series of phrases that begin: Just when you think ...

Just when you think it's safe (or advisable) to write off Theodore ...

He rallies.

Just when you think it's time to say he's got his groove back ...

He falters.

That's not all that dissimilar to the pattern of his tenure with the Canadiens, but now he's a 31-year-old goalie trying to save his career.

The guy has more goaltending lives than Felix "The Cat" Potvin.

During his tenure in Colorado alone, which began in March 2006, Theodore -- justifiably at times -- has been derided as washed-up and embarrassingly ineffective. The sort of goalie who brings winces from teammates, coaches and fans after another in a series of soft goals.

But of late, he seems to have rediscovered his ability to make that uncanny side-to-side save and anticipate plays. He also has ceased leaving the juiciest of rebounds.

Is he all the way back?

He shrugs off all questions of that ilk, saying he'll leave those evaluations up to others.

"Since I got here, everybody's been entitled to their opinion," Theodore said. "For myself, it's just being prepared every game and getting points. The rest, I'm going to let the people decide what they think."

Handling goalies never has been Quenneville's strength. At times he has treated Theodore like the 2002 Hart Trophy winner, on other occasions Quenneville's treated his netminder like he was the infamously inept Hardy Astrom, Quenneville's one-time Colorado Rockies teammate. Although Theodore certainly hasn't earned his coach's complete embrace, that one-end-of-the-spectrum-or-the-other approach surely hasn't helped.

After Budaj held down the No. 1 job down the stretch last season, it seemed likely Colorado would buy out the final season of Theodore's $16 million, three-year deal. Ultimately, the Avalanche decided to bring him back. General manager Francois Giguere's public reasoning was that Theodore was still capable of recapturing the magic and had earned the respect of everyone in the organization, including his teammates, because he continued to work hard and wasn't a grousing distraction while Budaj got all the work.

It also reflected an organizational view that the Avalanche might as well ride out the final season of his deal, and perhaps hope for lightning in a bottle while assuming Theodore could at least be a competent (if overpriced) backup to Budaj. It even got beyond the point of the Avalanche being afraid to admit a mistake in acquiring him for David Aebischer.

Aebischer's subsequent struggles with Montreal and Phoenix made unlikely that the Avalanche would be embarrassed for putting so much faith in Theodore. The issue became whether his cap figure ($5.3 million annually) and unreliability simply meant he had been an overrated investment.

It wasn't even out of line to argue that either Jarome Iginla or Patrick Roy would have been a more justified choice for the 2002 Hart; that Theodore had been overrated all along; and that the downsized equipment especially hurt the slight Theodore.

After all these false starts, it would be unwise to get too carried away while evaluating the current state of Theodore's game. Even if Theodore's back problem is only a temporary blip and he returns to the net, this all could change overnight -- both because of Quenneville's short leash and Theodore's up-and-down play. But it is absolutely true that with Sakic (hernia surgery), Smyth (broken ankle), and Stastny (appendectomy), all out, Colorado has needed a goalie to step up, and Theodore has.

"I think we're comfortable and confident in both Jose and Peter, but this is the first time in a while where Jose has had a chance to play consecutively," Quenneville said. "I just think you can see how he wants the net, how he's moving, how he's handling the puck. I just think that he is eager to grab the challenge of playing regularly."

Veteran winger Ian Laperriere said, "You don't get what he has, trophy-wise, being a guy without any character. Even with the year he had last year, people kept confidence in him, kept believing in him because of what he had done in the past. And right now, he's playing the best I've seen him play."

Colorado winger Andrew Brunette said Theodore's continuing hard work in practice helped keep his teammates from writing him off.

"I found him hard to score on because he's there before the puck gets there," Brunette said. "In practice, you'd get that feeling that he's still pretty good. I don't think we've ever lost confidence in him, but it was one of those things where Peter ran with the ball when he had it and it was tough to get it away from him."

Laperriere called Theodore's attitude "unbelievable. We all want to play, especially goalies, because if one is playing, the other isn't. He was so good. He worked with Peter, he wanted Peter to do good, and I think that's part of the reason. When you're nice to people, I'm a firm believer that it comes right back to you. He went out of his way to help Peter and be positive around the room. That was a credit to him and it's paying off right now."

Veteran defenseman Brett Clark, who usually plays against the opposition's top line with Karlis Skrastins, said it "wasn't hard" to keep faith in Theodore.

"I think as a group, we all knew he had it in him," Clark said. "And he kept a great attitude. He came in and worked hard every day. Every day, day in and day out, [he] never complained. He knew where he wanted to get to with his game, and we stayed behind him and let him work out what he had to."

Theodore said he did some soul-searching, both last season and during the offseason.

"I think, in a way, with experience and looking back, when you like your team and you like your teammates and you respect your organization, there's no sense in coming here and not helping the other guy out or not being supportive of your teammates," Theodore said.

Of course, Theodore had millions of reasons to be something other than a pouting malcontent. There are worse things in life than collecting $5.5 million last season and $6 million this season as a backup, if it came to that. Yes, he's now playing for a new contract, from the Avalanche or another team.

"I think every year you approach it the same way," Theodore said, "but obviously when it's the last year of the contract, I think as a player everybody puts that extra pressure on yourself, which is a fun and good pressure, I guess."

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."