When the Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves in an unexpected 2-2 first-round series tie with the New York Islanders, head coach Dan Bylsma made the decision to replace struggling goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with veteran backup Tomas Vokoun.
Vokoun pitched a shutout in Game 5 and then helped his team close out the Islanders in a Game 6 overtime victory on the road.
With a win against the Ottawa Senators Tuesday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Vokoun has established himself as the undisputed No. 1 goalie for the Penguins with a 3-0 record, a 1.28 GAA and a .962 save percentage since taking over.
But can this team win the Stanley Cup with the 36-year-old netminder anchoring the back end? To put it simply, Vokoun does have the ability to lead his team to a championship, and there are a few reasons why.
The biggest difference between Vokoun and Fleury is that the Czech netminder makes timely saves late in games that instill confidence in his teammates.
Fleury allowed too many confidence-deflating goals against the Islanders (many of which should have been easy saves). When a goaltender is giving up soft goals and allows the opposition to dominate third periods (Fleury allowed six third-period goals in his last three starts), teams start to panic.
Vokoun is cool, calm and collected in net and positions himself very well, which lessens the chances of a fluky bounce off the end boards sneaking into his net.
In the series opener against the Senators, he allowed a bad-angle shot to get past him—his first soft goal this postseason. But unlike Fleury, Vokoun was able to quickly move on and focus on the next save.
He bounced back and shut the door for the rest of the game, not allowing that soft goal to impact his confidence or performance. This is the kind of mental toughness that makes him a reliable goaltender.
Once Vokoun became the starter, the Penguins started to protect the puck better (about one less turnover per game), the penalty kill has improved and the wins have started to pile up.
Pittsburgh's penalty kill has to be effective for this team to make a deep playoff run, and with Vokoun, the Penguins are not allowing the opposition to capitalize on the power play. As the chart below shows, failing to kill penalties was a problem for the Penguins in their last two playoff exits.
|Year||Opponent||Round/Result||PK% (NHL Rank)|
|2010-11||Tampa Bay Lightning||1st/Lost 4-3||70.4 (15/16)|
|2011-12||Philadelphia Flyers ||1st/Lost 4-2||47.8 (16/16)|
Through the first seven games these playoffs, the Penguins' penalty kill has been much improved.
|PK% Overall (NHL Rank)||PK% with Vokoun||PK% with Fleury|
|90.0 (3rd)||11/11(100.0)||13/15 (86.7)|
Not only has the Penguins' penalty kill been a bit more effective with Vokoun in net, the team is also better at even strength.
|Goalie||+/- at ES|
It's very important for Pittsburgh to play well at even strength, because relying on its power play to carry the team to a championship is not an ideal situation (regardless of how successful it has been with the man advantage).
In his last three starts of the Islanders series, Fleury allowed three even-strength goals per game, while Vokoun has allowed a total of just four even-strength goals in his last three appearances.
Vokoun's consistency is impressive, and it will give the Penguins a great chance when the referees put their whistles away and let the players play (as normally happens in the later rounds).
What Vokoun has done thus far has been remarkable, but we really shouldn't be surprised. He's been one of the league's best goaltenders since the 2004-05 lockout, and his career stats are especially impressive for someone who has been stuck on a lot of bad teams.
Vokoun has won 300 games at the NHL level with a save percentage of .917 and has 51 shutouts since making his debut in '96-97. He knows what it takes to win and is highly motivated to capture the first championship of his career.
Having not played a single postseason game since 2007, Vokoun's performance against the Islanders under all the difficult circumstances proved that he's capable of leading his team to a title. He had just 11 games of playoff experience and never played past the first round, but you wouldn't know it.
The change in net has proven to be the right decision by Bylsma, and unless Vokoun's performance significantly drops off and the team is in danger of elimination, Fleury should not get his job back this season.
The Penguins' best chance of winning a Stanley Cup is with Tomas Vokoun between the pipes, because he's talented enough to beat elite teams, he's mentally tougher than Fleury and he doesn't crumble when the pressure mounts.