Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau stood at the podium during his postgame press conference and contemplated the question about whether Brent Johnson was successfully making a case for officially taking over as the team's netminder.
"You wanna start a goaltending controversy?" he said, bristling at the query.
But the question was asked because Johnson's play has necessitated its asking. He's clearly been better than fellow goalie Jose Theodore lately, winning his third start in a row with some spectacular saves against Boston. Look at the entire season, there's no doubt who has the better numbers, either:
But obviously there's more at play here than stats. The Capitals signed Theodore to a two-year, $9 million contract last summer to replace Cristobal Huet and, one assumes, become the veteran goalie that would help lead the team as an Eastern Conference title contender. Johnson has a been a solid backup goalie during his nine-year career, but hasn't played more than 38 games in a season in all but one of them (2001-02 with the St. Louis Blues).
"I don't have a controversy by any stretch," said Boudreau.
But that might be because Theodore isn't matching the stellar play of Johnson to give him one.
Boudreau made it clear that Theodore would get another chance in net soon, but that the team has to play the goalie that's helping it stay atop the Southeast Division.
"You want to ride the hot hand, and Johnny's hot right now. It happened to Theo last year, and I think Theo played the last 30 games and then led the team to their first playoff round upset," said Boudreau. "[Johnson is] doing his darndest to stay within the nets."
Last night saw Johnson make 33 saves; many of them noteworthy and acknowledged by the crowd. Can he tell when he's on?
"No. I mean, I felt really good today," said Johnson. "Obviously, it's good for them not to score in the first period. We've had a thing on our team, kind of letting shots in during the first minute or the first shot of the game. We've done a really good job trying to negate that."
The best of the night came against Blake Wheeler in the second period:
That save got the crowd on its feet in DC. Here's how Boudreau saw it:
"A crafty veteran would have gone up top. Blake Wheeler's going to be a great hockey player in this league, but a lot of time [a young player] will go and try to slide that in. A coach once told me ‘that's an American League move, and you'll be goin' down tomorrow. Whenever I see that, that's what I think of."
Johnson almost wasn't around to make the Wheeler save in the second period. He remained on the ice after the save against Kobasew, with pain in his hip, but stayed in the game.
If there are two things attempting to prevent Johnson from claiming the starting job, one is named Jose Theodore and the other is that hip. He said it's something with the ball joint, although there's been no MRI.
"Any kick to my left is sore. But nothing that's too much excruciating pain," he said.
It could be just inflamed, but Johnson said healing it would mean some time off.
"I'll just keep going with treatment," he said.
Is it a case where the Capitals shut him down to heal it?
"I hope not."
The last time Johnson was a primary starter for a team was with the Blues in 2001-02, when he had the majority of starts over Fred Brathwaite. He led the team in starts the following season, but has been a backup since then.
Boudreau said Johnson has to prove that he can be successful during a season-long grind.
"It's a marathon. This is Johnny's first chance, maybe since the St. Louis days, to push himself and see if he can't play equal games as the other guy."
He's three starts behind Theodore for the team lead.
And that might be the only significant statistic advantage for Johnson to erase in what's been a surprisingly good season.