It’s usually good policy to challenge conventional wisdom, but in this case the logic of the crowd is sound.
I’m referring to the idea that the Pittsburgh Penguins need to turn to backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun to start Thursday’s Game 5 in lieu of the clearly struggling Marc-Andre Fleury. Normally I’m not the “blame the goalie” guy, but with the Penguins’ first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the New York Islanders tied at two games apiece, a drastic change is needed.
Here’s a popular stat that got passed around Tuesday night after the Islanders rallied to win 6-4 in Game 4: Fleury has allowed 40 goals in his last 10 playoff games. The shadow of last year’s six-game debacle against the Philadelphia Flyers has slowly crept back into the picture, and it’s not all on the goalie, either.
However, the Penguins probably played well enough to win Tuesday at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. James Neal and Brooks Orpik returned from injury, giving Pittsburgh its full complement of players for the first time since late March. The Pens outshot the Isles 31-24 and further staggered the already shaky Evgeni Nabokov, eventually building leads of 3-2 and 4-3.
Sometimes you need a few saves, as Fleury provided often in back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and ’09. Strangely, his regular-season results have been good since then, but his postseason results post-Cup have often emitted an foul smell.
There was nothing more odious Tuesday night than when Kyle Okposo banked the puck off the hapless Fleury and into the net late in the second period to tie the score at 3. Goals don’t get much softer than that, as Fleury left his post and practically invited Okposo to try to do something Mario Lemieux did so often over the course of his career:
The Islanders’ first, second and sixth goals could also have been stopped easily if Fleury simply held his position instead of needlessly falling to the ice or over-committing. Add those leaky goals to the handful he surrendered in Games 2 and 3, and it’s natural to look to Vokoun for ballast in increasingly choppy seas.
Vokoun is 36, past his prime and probably no longer capable of holding down a No. 1 NHL job for an entire season. What he can provide is valuable stability for a team that is two losses away from an unthinkable fourth-straight first-round elimination. Game 5 will be heavily pressurized for the Penguins, while the Islanders will be full of confidence, thinking they can take the series lead for the first time.
I have lost confidence in Fleury’s ability to do what he has done in the past, namely come up with a solid performance in a big game. Penguins general manager Ray Shero signed Vokoun in case of emergency, and it’s time to break the glass. The former Canadien, Predator, Panther and Capital played in 20 of 48 games this year, claiming 13 wins and stopping nearly 92 percent of pucks that came his way.
Vokoun is capable, even if the Penguins continue to trade chances with the Islanders and fuel their attack with needless turnovers. Evgeni Malkin was the biggest culprit among the Pittsburgh skaters in that category Tuesday night, raising doubts about his ability to keep his composure in pressure situations. Kris Letang can be classified that way, too.
The Islanders have been good, showing that they may have a tremendous future ahead of them. Nevertheless, the Penguins are better and should be owning the present. A mid-series goalie switch could be just what Pittsburgh needs to alter the tenor of this series.
There is recent precedent for a team changing its goalie and going on to win the title. The Detroit Red Wings started the 2008 postseason with the legendary Dominik Hasek in the blue paint, but coach Mike Babcock turned to Chris Osgood when a first-round series against Nashville threatened to get away. Penguins fans know how that spring turned out, with the President’s Trophy-winning Wings claiming the Stanley Cup at Mellon Arena.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma played for Babcock in Anaheim and presumably learned much from one of the best in the business. It’s time for “Disco” to copy someone else’s dance moves.