Prior to the 2009 Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between Washington and New York, I predicted the Rangers would win.
In addition to believing in former Lightning coach John Tortorella, I also believed in the superiority of New York’s goaltending. In a best-of-seven series, Jose Theodore would not beat Henrik Lundqvist – Game 1 established I was correct and I expected my prediction would play out.
What I never expected was Washington coach Bruce Boudreau to do the almost unthinkable and sit his high-priced veteran goaltender in favor of an untested 20-year-old (at the time) Russian rookie, Simeon Varlamov, who spent the majority of the season with Hershey in the American League. While some pundits don’t believe coaches can win a playoff series on their own, I believe Boudreau’s decision enabled the Caps to advance.
The decision could not have been an easy one. When Caps GM George McPhee acquired Cristobal Huet at the 2008 trade deadline and Boudreau rode him down the stretch and into the post-season, it was widely assumed Huet would become the new No. 1 in Washington going forward. That assumption was reinforced when long-time Caps keeper Olaf Kolzig left town without even attending his exit meeting, making it clear his career in D.C., was done.
Presumably, insurmountable differences over money and term prevented the Caps from re-signing Huet and he went to Chicago for $22.4 million over four years. The Caps then signed UFA Theodore for $9 million over two years. With Huet and Kolzig out of the picture, Theodore would be the go-to goalie for the Caps.
To his credit, Theodore helped the Caps capture the Southeast Division crown and the No. 2 overall seed in the East this season. However, not many experts were convinced he had the goods to carry the Caps deep into the post-season. Apparently one of those experts was his coach, because when Theodore wasn’t sharp (by his own admission) in Game 1 against the Rangers, Boudreau did not hesitate to sit him.
Despite Theodore’s status and profile, and without regard to how much he’s earning or the fact he’s still under contract in Washington next season, Boudreau put the best interests of the team first and went with the untested rookie.
I know from experience how difficult it can be for a coach to make such a move. When we won our first playoff round in franchise history in Tampa in 2003 and advanced to Round 2 against the New Jersey Devils, our No. 1 goalie, Nikolai Khabibulin, allowed at least three goals in each of the first four games of the series. In order to win, we had to score at least four goals each game against arguably the best goaltender in the world, Martin Brodeur.
We did so only once and found ourselves heading to New Jersey trailing the series 3-1. That was when Tortorella made what was widely perceived to be the controversial and purportedly unpopular decision of sitting Khabibulin in favor of John Grahame. While Grammer didn’t win that game he did hold the Devils to just one goal through five-plus periods, before yielding a second goal in the third overtime.
When the media rushed to ask me after the game what I thought of Tortorella’s decision I replied, “I support him, and I asked him ‘what took you so long?’ ” Given the results in Washington thus far, I imagine McPhee is of a similar opinion with Boudreau.
Here’s to you, coach, for having the courage of your convictions and seeing it work like a charm.
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2008-09 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.