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Tomas Vokoun languished on losing teams, but Caps give him chance to win it all

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tomas Vokoun is not a loser.

He has lost 267 games during his NHL career, fourth-most among active goaltenders - but he's also fourth in save percentage and fifth in goals-against average.

Playing with the expansion Nashville Predators and then the lowly Florida Panthers, Vokoun was the proof that bad things can happen to a good goalie.

Even the games he won took a toll on the 35-year-old.

"Obviously, it's demanding. Every little mistake gets magnified because that can decide the game," Vokoun said. "If you're looking at scoring an average of two goals a game, you can only give up two. It was hard playing that way."

And while it wasn't Vokoun's first choice to sign a one-year deal worth $1.5 million, he's with the Washington Capitals now and has a chance to not only put losing behind him but also capture a Stanley Cup with his career winding down.

"I think everybody who plays NHL — that's their goal. Obviously for various reasons, I didn't have the chance very often in my career," he said. "I would say this is the first time, legitimately, that I'm on a team that is considered one of the top teams."

'You give up that goal and we lost'

Predators coach Barry Trotz speaks in glowing terms about Vokoun, who was the franchise's first star while the teams were pretty bad. Nashville missed the playoffs five times, and Vokoun lost 159 games (not counting overtime losses). He won 161.

"We were an expansion franchise and ... the way to sort of get through the expansion phase and get to the competitive phase is win some hockey games," Trotz said. "He gave us a chance to be successful - to take the first step."

When he was traded to the Panthers, it didn't get much better. He led the league in losses twice, and Florida finished in last place the past two seasons.

"Every mistake you make, people tell you, 'You give up that goal and we lost,' " Vokoun said. "It's kind of hard when every game is like that."

Vokoun called it "tough" to constantly be on bottom-feeding teams. It didn't matter that he posted impressive save percentages above .920 in each of the last three years.

"I'm a competitive person, and what was the toughest part about it — when you play professional sports, you hate to lose," he said. "I did my share of it the last few years in Florida. That's one of the reasons I decided I want to change scenery, and I didn't sign an extension in Florida, because I didn't think the team was going to be anywhere near close to where I want to be hockeywise."

Stealing Vokoun

Just about every single person around the Caps asked about Vokoun since July 2 has used the word "steal." To get a goaltender of his caliber for the bargain-basement price of $1.5 million on a one-year deal seemed too good to be true.

It should have been. A week earlier, the Philadelphia Flyers signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract, and Vokoun — as the top option on the free agent market — looked in line for a pay day. He didn't want to go back to the Panthers, who offered him three years on a deal believed to be worth $10 million.

But then the other teams in need of goalies went in other directions. The Phoenix Coyotes signed Mike Smith; the Colorado Avalanche traded a couple of high draft picks to the Caps for Semyon Varlamov, and the market dried up.

Then, Vokoun said, it became simple: similar offers from the Caps and Detroit Red Wings, one to start and one to back up Jimmy Howard, and Washington nabbed the steal of the offseason. Coach Bruce Boudreau called it "quite a coup" by general manager George McPhee.

And while Vokoun admitted even then that the money wasn't what he had liked, it's not the worst thing in the world to stumble into a chance like this.

Change of plans

Dealing Varlamov seemed to signal the Caps' desire to go with the kids — last year's playoff starter Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby. But with Vokoun too good to pass on, Holtby was again relegated to third on the organizational depth chart.

"Obviously, my goal is to play in the NHL, and that's a step back — I think everyone knows that. At the same time, Tomas is going to help this team immensely," Holtby said. "When you get a guy like that available to bring him into your team and your organization, obviously you take it. I've never faulted once George for doing that; I think that's the best for the team, and I know that."

Goaltending coach Dave Prior even called Holtby soon after Vokoun signed, with the message: "We weren't [kidding] anybody. We believed we could go with him and Michal." Now Holtby's year could be spent mostly in Hershey, with cameos in Washington, and Neuvirth's fighting for Caps starts.

But Neuvirth is approaching this season the same as last and pushing himself as much as his fellow Czech countryman is.

"When I was a little kid, he was my hero and I always wanted to be like him. Now I want to be better than him," Neuvirth said. "My goal is to be No. 1 goalie, and I proved last year I can be the guy. He's a great goaltender; he's been No. 1 goalie for a long time in the NHL, but I'm pretty confident about myself."

Vokoun isn't here to be a mentor to Neuvirth — he's here to start and win — but Prior mentioned that having something of an idol around to "access" might not hurt. And Vokoun's presence around the Caps is seen as another step toward being ready to make a serious playoff run.

Pedigree to win it

Vokoun hasn't won a whole lot in the NHL and really hasn't had many chances to prove himself in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But that doesn't mean he's a stranger to playing well in and winning big-time games - thanks to international competition.

Vokoun helped the Czech Republic to a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics and then put up a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in the 2010 Games.

Analyst Justin Goldman of the Goalie Guild compared Vokoun's increased confidence from those performances to that of countryman Dominik Hasek, who made it to the Cup final with the Buffalo Sabres in 1999 and won it all with the Red Wings in 2002.

"It's not going to be tough for him to elevate his game. It's not going to be tough for him to be confident," Goldman said. "You don't want his demeanor to change. You want him to play like it's any other game."

That's exactly how Vokoun talks, too, saying, "my job is stop the puck, and that never changes." And when you look at the common denominator a-mong Stanley Cup champions, goaltending is the most important piece. It's hard to handicap how he'll perform in the playoffs, but the same could be said for Nikolai Khabibulin, who led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Cup in 2004.

"That's not [Vokoun's] fault. He has put up tremendous numbers," NBC Sports' Mike Emrick said. "Now we'll get an idea how he can do with a really good team."

On a one-year contract and at 35 years old, Vokoun's chances seem limited. But his focus is on lifting the Cup.

"The one thing I'm the most excited about is the chance to be on a team like that and show people and show myself what you can do with it," he said.

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