Following a full-team practice Monday morning, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma declined to declare who will tend goal in the first game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Ottawa Senators.
It’s unclear if Bylsma will be more forthcoming Tuesday afternoon, when he’ll address the media in advance of that night’s Game 1 at Consol Energy Center. From this outsider’s perspective, it doesn’t matter what the Penguins coach says, as long as Tomas Vokoun is in the blue paint for the opening faceoff.
Vokoun was exactly the stabilizing force the Penguins needed in Round 1 after franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stumbled his way through the opening four games against the New York Islanders. In Games 5 and 6, Vokoun stopped 66 of 69 shots for a .957 save percentage, giving Pittsburgh the high-quality backstopping a team occasionally needs on a Stanley Cup run.
There is reason for concern that Vokoun, 36, will be unable to withstand the rigors of starting every game for multiple playoff rounds. While I understand the hesitation to pencil him in for six more weeks of hockey (if necessary), it’s clear that Vokoun needs to keep playing now.
It’s fitting that Vokoun wears No. 92 to Fleury’s 29, since the two have nearly opposite styles. Vokoun prefers to stand up to make his saves, one of the last goalies in the NHL for which that’s true. Like most netminders under 35 years old, Fleury drops to his knees in the “butterfly” position as a default. Vokoun’s game is about positioning, while Fleury sports off-the-charts athleticism. Heck, Vokoun even catches with his right hand to further illustrate their differences.
However, the most relevant distinction between the two in the first round was Vokoun’s poise in making the routine save. While Fleury misplayed several non-threatening New York shots into goals, Vokoun was beaten only when he had little chance to intervene.
Despite their sometimes-ragged play in the first round, the Penguins don’t need outstanding goaltending to go deep in these playoffs. Fleury’s ceiling is higher than Vokoun’s, as we’ve often seen over the last several years, but his floor is lower, too.
Considering the current level of both Pittsburgh goalies, I’d take my chances with steady over possibly spectacular, especially against an Ottawa team that scored the fourth-fewest goals in the regular season.
This analysis is temporary, of course. The Stanley Cup playoffs require constant reevaluation, since stubbornness can lead to elimination in a matter of days. Fleury may yet have his redemption in this postseason, but it should be Tomas Time for now.