The only question that surrounded the Pittsburgh Penguins going into the postseason this year was Marc-Andre Fleury. How would he respond to last year’s disappointing performance in their first-round exit to the Philadelphia Flyers? In six games, he allowed 26 goals and was pulled once.
It made the Penguins netminder the center of attention along with the shoddy penalty killing. These two areas of concern led to the Penguins’ downfall after a terrific regular season in 2012.
Entering the shortened 2013 season, the entire hockey world was looking at Pittsburgh once again to be a decent pick to win the Stanley Cup. The odds were certainly in their favor after their late-season acquisitions. General Manager Ray Shero added key components in Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray in the midst of a 15-game winning streak though March.
Now it’s seems like deja vu in the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs already.
Fleury slammed the door shut in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Islanders as he stopped all 26 shots in a 5-0 win. During the last three games, those skeptics have been banging on Fleury’s front door going into Game 5 with the series tied 2-2.
Metaphorically speaking, the goaltender may not be answering those knocks which could lead to some knocking on Head Coach Dan Bylsma’s door.
Even with his struggles in the playoffs he’s still has support from fans as he is one of the Penguins’ all-time leader in wins, yet it might be time for some fans of Pittsburgh to start wondering, is it time for Plan V(okoun)?
It may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.
Last year, Bylsma did not have the same contingency plan as he does this year. Brent Johnson, who served as Fleury’s backup in 2012 was far from a reliable replacement. ‘Disco Dan’ was not confident enough in Johnson’s ability to strengthen the team’s lack of goaltending.
This was one of the reasons that led Shero to make his first big splash during the offseason by acquiring Tomas Vokoun, a guy who has served most of his career as a starter. It was certainly an upgrade in that department for the Penguins.
Vokoun made 20 appearances this season and posted an impressive 13-4 record, a .919 save percentage and three shutouts.
Though this year’s scenario is slightly different with the series even at this point, but 14 goals allowed and a 1-2 record is lingering around Fleury. The defense has struggled at points allowing an unusual number of shots allowed. And the team as a whole has been turning the puck over continuously allowing the Islanders to create endless scoring opportunities. But let’s face it, Fleury has not been good.
The one goal that particularly put the icing on the cake was Casey Cizikas‘ sloppy goal at 18:44 of the third period in Game 4. This was the point of the game where the Penguins had a chance to tie the game in the last minute, but Cizikas shuffled the puck under Fleury’s blocker to make it a 6-4 game. At that moment, the poor positioning in net and body language on that goal showed he is at the point of no return.
We are simply not seeing the same guy who made one of the most miraculous saves in playoff history when he denied Nicklas Lidstrom in the final seconds of Game 7 in 2009 before they were crowned champions.
Here is where things get interesting. Fans who have stood by Fleury all of these years may have to take off their friend hats for one moment and analyze the situation.
This move which needs to be made immediately is not necessarily to send a message to the goaltender saying “we do not believe or trust in you anymore.” It is simply about the betterment of the team.
When a coach pulls a goaltender early or mid-game trailing by two or three goals, it is sending a message to the team and more often than not, it helps to turn the tide.
Bottom line is this- the Penguins cannot afford to downplay this opportunity. That opportunity is Vokoun, the guy who was brought here for this specific reason. The Islanders will end this series if Pittsburgh does not win Game 5 at home simply because New York has outplayed them in both games in Long Island.
Vokoun has earned the love and respect of the fans in the city well enough that it will not stir up a vibe in what is expected to be another sellout crowd at the Consol Energy Center Thursday.
Not only do the Penguins have a better shot at winning with Vokoun in net at this juncture, but it will give the entire team the hope, and it may take some pressure off the defense. Then Pittsburgh can go into New York Saturday with all of the momentum in their favor and end this series in six games.
If Fleury remains in goal Thursday for Game 5 and gives up another slew of questionable goals, the Penguins will lose this series and Bylsma may be the next man out.
Bylsma’s favorite saying is “Why not?” It’s time to live up to those words.