Would the Penguins have fared better in last year’s playoffs if goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had hauled a lighter workload during the regular season? By adding veteran Tomáš Vokoun last summer, the team hoped to keep Fleury fresher for the postseason, and that strategy became all the more crucial when this season became a compressed, 48-game sprint.
“You clearly approach the situation differently on a tightened schedule,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “Games are closer together. We have a lot of games every other day; stretches where we go four in six, six in eight, or seven in 10. So there’s a lot of hockey games, and each goalie is going to get his share.
“Marc-Andre Fleury will play the majority of the games but, in the last 48-game season, we saw the teams that had success, their one goaltender played in the 35-[game] range and the backup played in the 18-20 range. That’s going to be key, managing the schedule and managing the playing time.”
The Penguins wasted no time getting their new backup into action, starting Vokoun in their second contest of the season Sunday against the New York Rangers. And the 36-year-old netminder got his Pittsburgh career off to a strong start, stopping 31 of 34 shots in helping the Penguins cruise to a 6-3 win and get their shortened season off to a 2-0 start.
The start was a long time coming for Vokoun, who had been out of action since last March with a groin injury. The lockout provided him with the chance to rehab the injury fully, but also carried an added challenge in shaking off the rust, especially with only six days of training camp.
“I believe this is like riding a bike; you never really forget it, even if you don’t play for a long time,” Vokoun said. “But you still have doubts – more about conditioning, being game-ready, being able to fight through traffic and stuff like that.
“I think I did a pretty good job with that today, and it’s just the start. We won the first two games, both [against] pretty tough opponents, and I think we’ve got to be happy with four points.”
“I thought he stood strong,” Bylsma said. “There were some flurries and the puck was bouncing a lot at both ends of the rink. We know [the Rangers] are a good team at getting pucks into the blue-paint area from their offensive zone; they did that a number of times, he had to stand strong and I think that was key. Going into the third period, it was 4-1 and a lot of the plays were around and in his crease, and he was real strong in that regard. We’re glad to see him get his first win and help us get our second.”
The Czech native came to the Penguins from Washington in exchange for a seventh-round draft pick, then inked a two-year contract. He spent the previous four seasons in Florida, but it was his eight years in Nashville that made him the top choice of Penguins GM Ray Shero and assistant to the GM Tom Fitzgerald – formerly Vokoun’s assistant GM and teammate with the Predators, respectively – to help lighten Fleury’s workload. The 28-year-old starter has played in 62 or more games in five of the past six seasons, including a career-high 23 straight appearances last year.
“We still believe in Marc-Andre Fleury; he’s one of the better goaltenders in the league,” Shero said. “But the position is demanding, both physically and mentally. If you can get a quality guy like this who has a track record like Tomáš has, mentally it will give Marc a break, but it also challenges him. It challenges Tomáš as well. This is the best goaltending tandem we’ve had in a long time.”
For the Penguins, having a backup who would be a viable starter for a number of NHL teams gives them options, and the confidence to rest Fleury more often. For Vokoun, who has shone on the international stage with an Olympic bronze medal and two World Championship golds, the assignment gives him a chance at the NHL’s most coveted prize.
“I was a starting goaltender for years, and I haven’t had the chance to go deep in the playoffs and go through that experience,” Vokoun said. “Quite frankly, I’m at the age where I want to enjoy [playing] – not saying you don’t enjoy it, but it’s not the same when you’re not winning. And the opportunity I would have had to play more games, it wasn’t [with] teams where I felt that was going to be the case.”
The chance to back up Fleury also comes in the latter stage of a career that’s seen some unusual health issues, including a blood-clotting condition called thrombophlebitis of the pelvis, thumb surgery, and an ear laceration caused by a teammate’s errant stick to the head.
“I’ve had some health issues, and maybe this is the best thing for me,” Vokoun said. “I know I can still play [at a high level], but the question is if I can do it for 65 games and not suffer for that down the road and in my life after hockey. I’ve played a lot of games in the last 10 years, not only in the NHL but in international competition, and it all adds up.
“Now I’m healthy and I’m not thinking about injuries. I’m thinking about helping this team do well, get in the playoffs and win a Stanley Cup.”