Wanting to win and wanting to play led Tomas Vokoun to Washington in the summer of 2011. Devoid of other quality options, signing with the Capitals gave the veteran goaltender what he believed was a chance at winning a Stanley Cup.
A groin injury kept him from finishing the 2011-12 season and kept him from even being on the bench for the playoffs. When Vokoun had his pick of destinations last summer, he chose the Pittsburgh Penguins, even as a backup, because a championship had eluded him.
Now he’s eight wins away as Pittsburgh moves into the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Bruins. He’s not riding the pine as Marc-Andre Fleury does the job; the 36-year-old is between the pipes living out the chance he never got with the Capitals.
No one expects Capitals fans to root for Pittsburgh, but Vokoun’s emergence is the best story the mega-talented, high-powered Penguins have going for them.
“You hear about guys like Ray Bourque and everyone else that have worked their entire careers to get that opportunity, and it happens for a reason because I think the team rallies around it a little bit,” analyst Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild said.
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“I’m sure there are guys on the Penguins that are seeing Tomas Vokoun doing what he’s doing right now, coming off the bench and saying, ‘Fleury’s got a Cup, Vokoun’s the guy right now. We want to get him his Cup. We’re going to work hard for him.’”
Vokoun’s working for them, too. Since replacing the ineffective Fleury for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the New York Islanders, he’s 6-1 with a 1.85 goals-against average and .941 save percentage, helping the Penguins breeze past the Ottawa Senators in the process.
Vokoun hasn’t had to be dominant, just good enough to keep from losing games as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Co. take care of the rest. He hasn’t always looked confident and secure in the crease, and Goldman even called his style a little “sloppy.”
But, unlike Fleury, Vokoun hasn’t cost the Penguins by imploding and giving up bad goals.
“I think it’s just a different mental approach,” Goldman said. “When he does face that quality scoring chance, whether it’s a limited number or more scoring chances than usual in a higher-scoring game, he always seems to make that timely save.”
That was Vokoun’s biggest challenge after joining the Capitals. Accustomed to a heavy workload with the lowly Florida Panthers, he had to adjust to facing fewer shots and making stops when cold.
Before even playing a regular-season game for Washington, Vokoun was relieved that he wouldn’t have to win games 1-0 too often, given the offensive weapons in front of him. He won 25 games for the Capitals and put up numbers in line with his career average, but the first groin injury of his long NHL career kept him from just his third postseason.
In eight seasons with the Nashville Predators, Vokoun appeared in just 11 playoff games. Leading the league with a .939 save percentage in 2004 didn’t get him out of the first round, and until May 9, he went six years between playing in the playoffs.
In between, he played 316 regular-season games, mostly for the Panthers, and was generally overlooked when considering the better goaltenders in the league. But his international experience, leading the Czech Republic to world championship gold medals in 2005 and 2010 and an Olympic bronze in 2006, showed Vokoun was capable of coming up clutch.
“The guy has big-game experience,” Goldman said. “When you play for your country there’s a lot of pride there and there’s a lot of pressure there, too. I think he definitely goes under the radar. He doesn’t get the type of credit he deserves because a lot of his success has come on the international stage and that doesn’t really get recognized like it does with the Stanley Cup playoffs.”
Recognition is closer than anyone could have envisioned when the Penguins traded a seventh-round pick for Vokoun’s rights a year ago. Upon signing him to a two-year, $4 million contract, general manager Ray Shero thought he was getting one of the best backup goalies in the league. And as recently as February, coach Dan Bylsma was insistent that there was no controversy: Fleury was the starter.
That all changed in the first round, and barring injury or a complete meltdown, Vokoun could be the man for the Penguins until they’re eliminated or celebrating. If that’s the case, credit Vokoun’s experience, which included bombing out in his NHL debut with Montreal Canadiens at age 20 and too many seasons that ended before the playoffs.
“When you have the experience of knowing what it’s like to face those highs and lows because you’ve had situations in the past where you had failed, then you’re going to find a way to battle through that,” Goldman said.
That’s just what Vokoun is doing: finding a way. He’s not the most technically sound goalie at this stage of his career, nor is he the most talented of those left in the playoffs.
But just being in this situation is more than anyone figured for Vokoun. Underrated, underappreciated and undervalued, he’s seizing opportunity with the Penguins and close to finding the validation he has been waiting his entire career for.