PITTSBURGH — Tomas Vokoun's face lit up at the mention of Marc-Andre Fleury's name. Fleury is entrenched as the Pittsburgh Penguins' starting goaltender, but Vokoun went there as his backup and in the hopes of winning a Stanley Cup.
"Mark is great guy. It's really easy," Vokoun said of the goalies' relationship. "I never anticipated it to being hard because I never had a bad experience. But it's even easier than I thought it would be. He's just a great, funny, positive guy, and it's been great."
It's not often you see a veteran guy with a resume as a No. 1 goaltender willingly accept a backup job, but that's what Vokoun did last summer. When the Washington Capitals gave the 36-year-old and his agent permission to talk to other teams before the start of free agency, they chose the Penguins, who signed Vokoun to a two-year, $4 million contract.
Money well spent so far. Vokoun is 3-1-0 with a 2.08 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in his first five appearances, including a victory Sunday over his former team.
And even though those numbers are slightly better than Fleury's, there's nothing of a goaltending controversy in Pittsburgh. Fleury will start Thursday night against the Caps.
"Marc-Andre Fleury's our starting goaltender, and Tomas Vokoun knew that when we signed him. That's the intention," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think this year they're splitting more games this year than in an 82-game season, but Marc's going to play the share of the games, and Tomas has been able to come in and play big games as well. He's a very good goaltender; we think we have a great tandem with those two, and it's a tandem where Tomas is not just going to get the other games on the schedule where sometimes a backup goalie gets."
That's more than all right with Vokoun, who at his age is more concerned about the playoffs than being the man. In 13 NHL seasons, he has been on a playoff team just four times and appeared in 11 postseason games. In two of those playoffs, Vokoun didn't even play, and that includes last year with the Caps when he was out with a groin injury.
"For me consider my health issues in last couple years. Saying that, if I could find [a No. 1 job and a contending team,] it would probably be my first choice, but I didn't think that was the case," Vokoun said. "Quite honestly, so far I've been enjoying hockey. You just never know. Obviously maybe could've choose little better personal situation, but I don't think it would have been on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations."
But he also had never been on a team as clearly the backup. Vokoun hasn't rocked the boat.
In fact, Fleury lights up when talking about the veteran, too.
"It's been good, you know?" Fleury said. "He's a guy that has been around for a long time and knows the game very well. Plays a little different, so I think I can try to learn some tips to see how he does things, so I think that's great, yeah."
Asked of the relationship with Vokoun, Fleury brought up the experience he brings to the Penguins.
"He's been around for a very long time, and he had a lot of success," said Fleury, who backstopped Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup in 2009. "I respect him a lot; I think everybody does. He's very easygoing; we get along good. He's easy to play with."
And it's easy for Bylsma to throw Vokoun into the fire. Nothing against previous backup Brent Johnson, but Vokoun can spell Fleury and provide more reliable goaltending. Johnson made just 14 starts last season to Fleury's 64; Vokoun could make more than 14 in this 48-game season.
"To have Tomas be able to play some big games and not just the other games on the schedule, he's been able to go in and play big games and play well for us and get big wins," Bylsma said. "I think that's been excellent for our group and for our goaltending tandem."
There are several reasons the Penguins are atop the Atlantic Division and second in the Eastern Conference through 10 games, including defenseman Paul Martin's return to prominence. But Vokoun and Fleury have played a big part.
"I think our goaltending's probably been the one thing this year that's been more like normal," Bylsma said. "We've had some good goaltending from both our starter, Marc-Andre, and Tomas has gone in and played some big games as well. I think that's been key for us in getting our game right and getting some wins."
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