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Live Without a Net

“Everything is going pretty well for Pittsburgh right now, but I want to keep an eye on their goaltending.” NHL Network analyst Mike Milbury echoed the thoughts of a lot of hockey fans and media when he made that innocent comment last month.

Pittsburgh had recently inserted veteran back-up Tomas Vokoun in goal after starter Marc-Andre Fleury struggled badly for the second consecutive postseason.

The heavily favored Penguins made the switch when they were knotted in a 2-2 series with the upstart Islanders, with Fleury taking the brunt of the blame. The man nicknamed “Flower” was wilting so severely under the intense playoff heat that Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma had no choice but to replace him with Vokoun, who was coming off an excellent regular season as Fleury’s number two.

Good teammates will tell you that if they do their jobs, it doesn’t matter who is in net. The Penguins said just that while Fleury struggled a year ago, allowing 26 goals in five games against Philadelphia during the 2012 playoffs. They said the same thing after he allowed 14 goals in games 2, 3 and 4 in the opening series against the Islanders last month.

To a great extent, those Penguins players spoke the truth. The team played horrendous defense against the Flyers last season, and the Islanders outplayed Pittsburgh during the three-game span noted above.

But make no mistake, the other five players on the ice are acutely aware of what’s going on between their net.

“I think it frees you up, you’re not quite as tight and tentative when the game starts and the pressure’s on,” Ottawa Senators head coach Paul MacLean said about a team’s faith in their goaltender. “If you know your goalie can make some saves for you it can help loosen you up more than the team who doesn’t know if their goalie can.”

Former Penguins defenseman Jim Paek, who won Stanley Cups with the team in 1991 and 1992, says players are merely being politically correct when they claim it doesn’t matter who’s in net.

“Guys say that because they just say it, I think,” said Paek, currently an assistant coach for the Grand Rapids Griffins, the AHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings. “I think it’s very important that you have, for lack of a better term, a number one. And that he’s hot, so that the players know exactly what you’re going to get.

“Players play totally different, I believe, when there are different goalies in there,” Paek continued. “They might trust one goalie over the other and they’ll play differently. I think it’s a huge factor that they know what the last line of defense is. It’s a huge factor that you know your guy in the net can be trusted to make the big save when they need to make the big save.”

Paek’s assertion is backed up by results. Of the 50 teams who have reached the Stanley Cup Finals over the past quarter century, only two—the 1997 and 2010 Philadelphia Flyers—used a goaltending tandem throughout the playoffs. The ’97 Flyers used both Ron Hextall and Garth Snow in the postseason, while the 2010 squad went back and forth between Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher. Neither team won the Cup.

In fact, not since the 1972 Boston Bruins got six wins apiece from Eddie Johnston and Gerry ChPenguinseevers has a team won the Stanley Cup with two goalies each winning more than four games.

“That’s very, very difficult and very unusual in National Hockey League history to have that scenerio,” said former Washington Capitals coach and longtime NHL television analyst Gary Green. “No coach wants to go into the playoffs without knowing who his number one is. But he also wants to know, if that guy falters, that he can have complete confidence (in the back-up).”

Stanley Cup winners have changed goalies when the initial playoff starter has struggled. The 2006 Carolina Hurricanes started Martin Gerber in the first round, but turned to a 21-year-old Cam Ward when they fell behind the Montreal Canadiens two games to one. They rode the rookie all the way to the Cup. The Detroit Red Wings replaced a struggling Dominek Hasek with veteran Chris Osgood early in the ’08 playoffs, and it was Osgood who hoisted the Cup when Detroit won the title at Mellon Arena several weeks later.

Circumstances have also forced teams to get contributions from multiple goaltenders. The 2007 Anaheim Ducks leaned on Ilya Bryzgalov for a series while starter J.S. Giguere was absent due to a family matter. The 1991 Penguins got four wins from back-up Frank Pietrangelo when he stepped in for an injured Tom Barrasso early in the postseason.

The difference is that those teams knew, without any doubt, who their top goalie was.

“We won in Pittsburgh with Tom Barrasso,” said Paek. “Frankie Pietrangelo came in there for a few games, but Barrasso was outstanding. He was our number one and we ran with him.”

Marc-Andre Fleury has been the Penguins number one for most of the past decade, winning a Stanley Cup and entrenching himself in the team history with numerous career records. He’s also extremely well-liked by his teammates.

“I know that the players and the coaching staff feel badly,” Green said about Fleury’s struggles. “He’s one of the most likable goalies I’ve ever been around and he’s a great team man, so you want him to be in the net. But you need to win. This isn’t the regular season now, this is for all the potatoes, so you’ve got to go with your best man. That’s just the way it is.”

As the first round of the playoffs turned into the second, and the second led to the conference finals, Vokoun’s play made Bylsma’s goaltending decision easy.

“This is his time right now and he knows it,” said Green about Vokoun. “He’s got a very good team in front of him and they’re giving him a chance to go for it.”

Vokoun, 36, has earned that chance. He holds numerous career records for the Nashville Predators. He’s been selected to two All-Star games and has had success internationally. But Vokoun’s postseason career has been an erratic string of near-misses, disappointments and simple rotten luck.

Vokoun led Nashville to their first-ever playoff appearance in 2004. The Predators lost to a powerful Detroit Red Wings team in six games, but not before Vokoun turned in several breakout performances, including a 41-save shutout. The series established Vokoun and the Predators as rising stars in the NHL, but the lockout the following season abruptly ended their rise.

When hockey returned in 2005-06, the Predators appeared ready to ride their hot goalie to another playoff berth. In the midst of the stretch run, however, Vokoun was felled by a blot-clotting condition that forced him to the sidelines. He missed the rest of the regular season, watching helplessly as the Preds were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

He’s played with pins in the thumb of his blocker-hand, been carried from the ice on a stretcher after being inadvertantly slashed in the head by his own teammate, shuffled between three teams the past three years, and ultimately accepted a role as a back-up.

Yet Vokoun enters June a mere eight Penguinswins away from a Stanley Cup.

Vokoun has a complete grasp on what his immediate future might hold, yet he’s taking absolutely nothing for granted.

“From my own experience, I know how hard it is to get where we are right now, so you appreciate it and you enjoy it and you leave everything out there,” Vokoun said after the Penguins dispatched the Senators to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. “You make sure when it’s all said and done, at least I did everything.”

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