Tomas Vokoun, who had a rough season with the Washington Capitals in 2011-12, is off to a hot start since joining the ranks of the Pittsburgh Penguins—hot enough to warrant a shot as the team’s starting netminder.
Backing up Marc-Andre Fleury, the Czech goaltender has started five of the team’s 13 games this season. Of those, he won three and helped carry the team to its only shutout of the season—which was against the New York Rangers, mind you.
If anything, the consistency Vokoun has shown makes him deserving of an opportunity to be the team’s starting goalie.
In the five games he’s started, Vokoun has a .914 save percentage. His worst game of the season so far was Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils.
That most recent start of his doesn’t exactly attest to his consistency in the net. While he didn’t live up to the expectations the team had for him in that game, the Penguins defense also allowed the Devils to have plenty of traffic in front of Vokoun—not doing him any favors.
On that same note, the defense in front of the net has also been a reason that Fleury has struggled in some games this season. The difference is that, up until Sunday’s game versus the Devils, Vokoun had done a better job dealing with it.
His performance against the Capitals during their nationally televised matinee doesn’t look particularly good on paper, either.
Yes, he only saved 21-of-24 shots. However, one of the goals he allowed was a fluke. Just as Vokoun left the net to play a puck dumped in by Capitals defenseman John Carlson, it took a lucky bounce on the boards and went right into the empty net.
While Vokoun has a smaller sample size, one could argue his consistency is better than Fleury’s.
In the eight games Fleury has started, his save percentage has ranged from an abysmal .765 that got him pulled against the New York Islanders on Jan. 29 to the .969 that led the Penguins to a shootout victory over the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 27.
The fact that Fleury’s season-high and season-low occurred in back-to-back games illustrates his struggles with consistency.
Fleury has helped carry the Penguins to some important wins, but his inconsistent performance has been the culprit of some of their biggest losses. Most recently, he gave up three goals on 28 shots during a road game against divisional rival Devils—bringing the team’s five-game winning streak to a screeching halt.
At the same time, Vokoun also gave up three goals and allowed the Devils to secure a second consecutive victory over the Penguins—this time in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins have already shown that they have good bit of confidence in Vokoun. Head coach Dan Bylsma’s decision to have Vokoun play the final period of the aforementioned Islanders game paid off when he stopped all seven of the shots he faced in those 20 minutes.
Sure, the Penguins still lost 4-1, but Vokoun made certain the beating wasn’t any worse.
The next step is Bylsma and company giving Vokoun back-to-back starts. If Vokoun can continue to excel, that wouldn’t be a hard decision for the coaching staff to make.
Being in net for Sunday’s loss to the Devils at home may push back that opportunity, though. Vokoun wasn’t terrible in that game—he held the Devils off the scoreboard in the third and worked with what his team’s defense gave him.
Still, the .870 save percentage is below the club’s expectations for him. It’s not enough for Bylsma to rethink starting him in an upcoming game, but it wasn’t nearly a good enough outing to warrant back-to-back starts any time soon.
One reason the Penguins brought in Vokoun was to give Fleury more downtime. Fleury has started at least 62 games in every season since 2008. Having an elite goaltender as a backup allows the Penguins to rest their franchise goalie more often.
That should prove to be especially beneficial in this condensed season.
Having Vokoun on the bench should also help bolster Fleury’s performance. After all, having Vokoun readily available to put in when Fleury is underperforming should light a fire under him.
Considering all five of Vokoun’s starts, as well as the 20 minutes he played when Fleury was floundering, he deserves a chance as starting goaltender.
Since the season was drastically cut by the lockout, the Penguins don’t have many games to experiment with major goaltender changes. That said, Vokoun will need to perform even better than he has so far to stand out enough to earn a chance as starting goalie.
But again, the lockout-shortened season may affect that opportunity. If it doesn’t happen soon, it might not happen at all. The Penguins won’t want to remove Fleury from the starter position too late in the season or during the playoffs.
Vokoun has proven, to an extent, that he deserves at least a chance to start back-to-back games. However, his sub-par performance against the Devils set him back and doesn’t leave him with much time to bounce back and prove he’s worthy of the opportunity to dethrone Fleury as starting goalie.