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Just as everyone predicted the Pittsburgh Penguins moved on to round two of the Stanley Cup playoffs, though few saw their series against the New York Islanders playing out the way it did after Marc-Andre Fleury whitewashed the Isles 5-0 in game 1.
Last Thursday, with the series surprisingly deadlocked at two, Dan Bylsma was forced to call on his back-up goalie, Tomas Vokoun. As I wrote last week, it was an act of desperation, but Ray Shero had ensured his team was equipped to deal with Marc-Andre Fleury wilting, as he had in last year’s first round, by trading for and signing Vokoun in one of the off-season’s more prescient and under-appreciated deals. Vokoun was a solid option and he shined when summoned.
Vokoun stoned the Isles 4-0 in game five and came back Saturday and led the Pens to a 4-3 overtime victory. In the clincher Pittsburgh was outshot 38-21 and was outplayed for all but the last five minutes of regulation and a few minutes of OT. No single player was more important in slamming the door on the upstart Isles than Vokoun. Down 3-2 in the third he stopped two 2 v 1s and then made more big saves during #freehockey before Brooks Orpik sent the raucous Nassau crowd home, maybe for the last time ever, and the Pens onto a match-up with the Ottawa Senators. #TomasTime was a huge success.
Now it’s time for Bylsma to go back to Marc-Andre Fleury for game 1 against Ottawa.
Is there risk involved? Sure. Vokoun was great against the Islanders and it’s possible the Penguins would be cleaning out lockers and dusting off golf clubs without him. But Vokoun is the team’s number two goaltender. During the season he was solid in net and provided a steadying influence in the locker room. But coming into this season he had played a total of 11 playoff games, winning three and had never won a series. Marc-Andre Fleury has been to the Stanley Cup Finals twice and his name is on the trophy.
Fleury is the team’s best option, their better goalie and he proved that with perhaps the best play of his career during the regular season.
There has been so much talk about “4,” the number of wins needed to get out of the first round, that the big picture has been obscured. The goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins is to win the Stanley Cup, not get to the second round. In the short-term it is important to set sights on smaller objectives, paying attention to the details needed to secure each win. But at the same time the organization has to be mindful of the team’s long-term goals. This team has only one goal for the season. Win the Stanley Cup.
The best chance for the Penguins to win the Cup is to bring Marc-Andre Fleury back into the mix in game 1. Game 1 is not a Super Bowl-type winner-take-all contest. If that were the case, there is no doubt that Tomas Vokoun should be in net. But it isn’t and that’s the key.
The most important thing in Game 1 isn’t winning, it’s seeing if the Pens can get their number one goaltender back on track. If they can, it’s a huge win-win for the team. The have Fleury back, while knowing that they can again turn to a confident and tested Vokoun if necessary.
Sure the leash on Fleury should be short, and if he comes up short again, he’s done. Vokoun is the guy. But let’s ask the question. If not now, when? If Vokoun starts game 1 and then is injured or falters somewhere along the way how comfortable is it going to be to have to call on Fleury?
No, the right move here is obvious. Bring Fleury back. It’s possible it may cost the team a game if he plays poorly, but the risk/reward is skewed heavily in the teams favor. If Fleury reverts to form and plays the way he is capable, not only might he win game 1, he may ultimately win them the Cup.
And that’s the goal and why he should be in it the next time the Penguins take the ice.
Photo Courtesy Of Getty Images.