Buffalo Sabres v Pittsburgh Penguins

When the bells rang out in Nassau Coliseum to indicate that it was six-past-Fleury on Tuesday night, a very real question starting surfacing around the hockey world: who in the hell do the Penguins start in Game 5?

We now have our answer:

So what now? Is this the right call?

The numbers of late for Marc-Andre Fleury in the post-season haven’t been pretty. This was a note included in a press release from the NHL today:

Since shutting out Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals on April 13, 2011, Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is 6-10 with a 3.68 goals-against average and .864 save percentage in 16 postseason games. He has allowed four or more goals in 10 of those 16 games.

Insert awkward collar tug.

Those numbers include a Game 1 shutout of the New York Islanders this year, where the Penguins entirely out-classed the Islanders, who never snapped out of their deer-in-headlights trance. Fleury made 26 saves in that game.

Since then he’s given up four, four and six goals, including the kind we saw in playoffs last year against Philly.

There was “Okposo’s” in Game 2:

And there was Okposo’s in Game 4:

 And then there was this one to put the icing on the cake:

He’s been bad, we get it.

So consider:

If you start Vokoun, and the Penguins win…you’re going with Vokoun again in the next game. He’s your guy. This wouldn’t be a problem, because a win is a win is a win is a win to the fans, but when you look at your goalies’ contracts from an organizational standpoint, and one guy is putting five shmill in his jeans every year until 2015 (and the other makes $2M next year then can walk), you’d really really like for the guy you’re calling Your Guy to be the one in net as you make your Cup run, partially because you’re stuck with him. You’ve won a Cup with him before, he was in net for your great season, and by not going with him, you’re killing his potential trade value. You’re screwed a number of different ways.

If you start Vokoun and the Penguins lose… Then what? Worse, what if you lose a low-scoring game? I just can’t see another playoff game in this series ending 5-4, and you know Pitt is going to clamp down defensively, so then you’re in a position where you can start your starter who has been terrible, or you can start your backup (who is now coming off a loss) and possibly damage your relationship with said starter heading into next year.

And obviously, had you chosen to start Fleury, you’d be starting Fleury, and right now that’s a scary thought for a team that was presumed to be the Cup favourites, or at the very least, co-Cup favourites with Chicago.

Last season when Pittsburgh was scoring enough goals to win but losing because of goaltending, they felt they didn’t have a backup goaltender good enough to justify making the switch (it was Brent Johnson at the time), so in the summer they went out and got Tomas Vokoun for a song so they could have some peace of mind.

And while having to use your backup in playoffs and the phrase “peace of mind” rarely go together, we find ourselves at a place where that worst-case-scenario has come to pass, and you have to hit the panic button you bought.

Had Dan Bylsma had chosen to start Fleury again, he’d be doing it for relationships and future business, and not for the good of the team this year, and this year they have the type of roster that can win a Cup. They had to make this move, because you can’t say that every season, and you only get so many.

While it might create some drama down the stretch – is there any chance Vokoun wins, and they go back to Fleury? – you can’t continue plugging 29 in the crease when he’s playing like dog meat. You wouldn’t treat a player at any other position any differently.

At this point, your best case scenario is basically a high-scoring win so you can validate giving Fleury another chance to take the reins.

***

A couple more reasons the Penguins had to go with Vokoun:

Comments (25)

  1. I think the Pens go with Vokoun, win the next two games or at least win two out of the next three. Then they start Fleury for game one in the second round.

    If Fleury still plays terribly, then you go to Vokoun and never go back.

    • That sounds good on paper, but many teams go with whoever is hot in the playoffs, not who has the most fragile psyche. For his sake, I hope Fleury can shake his postseason blues, but if Vokoun keeps the Isles to 2 or less goals and helps the Pens advance to the next round, I doubt Bylsma would put Fleury back in unless there’s a back-to-back in the schedule or Vokoun starts to falter. It’s his job to play the players who win the games, even he’s not done that so far. So maybe Fleury would go back in with a strong Vokoun performance.

    • Solid plan.

  2. Man, did we NOT see this coming a mile away?

  3. “I just can’t see another playoff game in this series ending 5-4, and you know Pitt is going to clamp down defensively, …”

    I thought the same thing last year against the Flyers. Didn’t happen.

    • Pittsburgh isn’t a good defensive team. They just aren’t. They might be mediocre, but some of their “defense” can really be attributed to having enough skill to stay in the attack zone period after period. When that isn’t working and they get pressed, the D just isn’t very good.

      That said, Fleury seems to have some problems and Vokoun is the right call. He’s still got the goods and is probably a better choice in any event…

      • I agree with everything you said. Then you have to consider the caps had to dump Vokoun for Holtby in the play offs…

  4. I’d give Fleury a mulligan for the injury-plagued team against TBL and the total team breakdown (12 PPGs) against Philly last year. With this year’s team built for the Cup, you have to treat benching your starter the same way as trading picks for rentals – you’re exchanging future concerns for short-term gain. If they lose confidence in Fleury altogether, there’s always a buyout.

  5. I agree with how Ben sees this playing out.

    And I’ve been thinking (and am going to naively ask…), what’s so wrong with a goalie tandem during the playoffs? Of course, you’ve addressed this in your post above JB, but on a higher, more, philosophical level – why reject out of hand what worked fairly well during the regular season?

    It’s obvious that Fleury needs more mentoring and to develop more mental toughness and endurance under pressure, and Vokoun seems just the guy to do it – so if we need Voky to save our bacon at any point in the playoffs, why does it have to be so cataclysmic? From what I know from following the Pens closely, Fleury doesn’t have a huge ego (and maybe that is part of the problem), but he does have a competitive fire, so Vokoun spelling him (and the team) doesn’t have to be a big controversy. I mean, even he has to admit he isn’t getting it done and if it takes relieving him of the pressure of being “the guy” to get him back in the game mentally, then so be it.

    Bottom line, I’m sure he wants whatever will deliver the team success.

  6. The most frustrating thing about Fluery is he’s such an athletic goalie that he makes saves that only a hand full of people in the world can make. Saves that most NHL starting goalies can’t make. His problem is consistency. He just shows a lack of mental focus time and again.

  7. Fleury has not been the same since the winter classic loss to the Caps. Last night’s Okposo goal (Fluery seemed to be in a credible butterfly but just not facing the right way, which sort of is the point) is the harbinger of doom for him. The goal is to win the Stanley Cup this year, not protect egos or trade values. The way he is playing they can not wint the Cup.

  8. At what point should a goaltender pull themselves? Personally, I would have pulled Fleury after the 2nd period last night. It was obvious that he was off his game, and his head was not in a good place. I understand Bylsma leaving his “#1″ goalie in when his team is tied 3-3 going into the 3rd period… he’s got to give him that chance to win them the game. But it was clear from all 3 goals before the end of the second that Fleury was struggling.

    What I would love to see one day, and should have seen from Fleury last night, is a goalie actually pull himself. Go up to the coach and say, “My head’s not into it tonight, I’m sorry but I think Vokoun will give us the best chance to win in the 3rd”. Do players pull themselves out when they have an injury and don’t want to hurt the team? Sure they do, so why can’t a goalie do the same?

    I believe that mental strength and confidence are just as important to someone’s success as their abilities are. There’s no doubt that Fleury is a phenomenal athlete and can stop pucks just as good as anyone in the game when he’s at his best. But if he is not mentally strong, he needs to treat it like an injury, and get himself out of the game. Do it for the team, give the team the best chance to win. There’s no shame in that.

    I think the Penguins would have won if Vokoun played the 3rd period last night. Then Fleury could relax, refocus and head into game 5, up 3-1 in the series, back in his hometown and in a mental state that’s necessary to closeout the series. That would have been the ideal situation last night. He shouldn’t have played the 3rd period when it was clear he was struggling. Then we wouldn’t have this controversy of “who is the starter for game 5″?

    • You are only VERY rarely going to see a professional athlete ask for the coach to bench him. You don’t get to the pros in any major sport without a very serious competitive streak and that doesn’t tend to lead to guys wanting to sit. Moreover, a lot of guys think that they will be seen as weak if they ask to sit out (whether or not this is true, I have no idea) and that’s the kind of stigma pro athletes really need to avoid, with so much of the game being mental.
      A really good example of this from the NFL was Robert Griffin III in the Redskins’ playoff game versus the Seahawks. He had clearly injured his leg in some way, but didn’t want to come out (and his coach idiotically let him make this decision himself). I remember one play in particular where he ran for 8 yards or so with this ridiculous limping stride. This (compounded by the terrible field they were playing on) led to him tearing his ACL later in the game.

  9. Fleury has always been on of those “if we can just coach the idiot out of him” players that teases with talent but makes awful decisions and lacks some basic fundamentals.

    • I thought that about Jon Quick until last year, too. Then Hextall and Ranford apparently coached the bad plays out of him, but they’ve returned a bit this season.

  10. As a Wings fan with memories of 2008, let me add the optimistic viewpoint for the benefit of Pittsburgh fans. What if the Pens play Vokoun, and he backstops them to a series win over the Isles and then all the way to the title, just like the Wings rode Osgood to the Cup in 2008 after benching Hasek in their first-round series with the Nashville Predators. Osgood came in for game four against the Preds, started game five and went the rest of the way between the pipes with the Wings eventually beating the Pens in the finals. Could happen. Also, I’m not too keen at this point on Fleury playing for my Team Canada at the next Olympics! Course the other options ain’t looking too good either at this point. Yikes.

    • The gold medal game will be a showdown between Canada and USA. The goalies?

      LUONGO V. SCHNEIDER

      Can you imagine?

  11. If Vokoun can stop pucks as well as an average NHL-Calibre goalie, and not put any in his own net, it will be smooth sailing for the Pens.

    • Exactly, he doesn’t have to win them games or a cup. Just not lose it. Kind of like Niemi was for Chicago a couple of years ago.

  12. It’s a mystery why the Pens keep Fleury. Has he ever even hit league average SV%?

    Vokoun had the best numbers in the league for a lot of years. Hopefully he’s got something left for them because with their weak team defence they need at least average help in net.

  13. Over the past 5 seasons, Fleury has not cracked the top 10 in Even Strength Save Percentage. His highest was 12th, in 08-09. Over the same period, Vokoun has been top 10 THREE times. This really isn’t up for debate. Vokoun is a good goalie, Fleury is a league average goalie.

  14. I’ve never felt strongly for or against fleury as a pens season ticket holder for 10 years. But at this point he’s pretty much become irrelevant. I really don’t want to see him in net again as a penguin well because what is the point?

    I’m pretty sure the pens can get better performance from any decent callup for a relatively small amount of money.

    I would be interested in what JB thinks the locker-room is like for fleury knowing they he’s let 3-4 game changing goals in. A save percentage in the last game of .75 is almost something you need to work at. And two goals from his right near the post (one of which he pushed in) is just bad technique.

    I was surprised fleury stayed in after the third goal the last game. From the owners perspective they need a goalie that can win games so they can bring in the cash. At CEC with 18,000 seats at a conservative175 a ticket that’s 3.15 mil. a game. They need as many home playof games as they can get.

  15. Last fan is wondering the same thing i am. After that horrific game for flower, i was discussing with the wife just how the team would treat him. Maybe JB can shed some light on this, but does Crosby take him out for lunch and have a pep talk? Does the team shun him and try and let him figure this out for himself? Does a small group of players corner him and give him a blanket party? Does Fleury stand up and apologize to the team? His play lately has to be wearing on himself along with the team. “Oh dammit dont let them shoot on us tonight!”

    • I played backup goaltender as I was young in junior and the OUA and I can tell you the psychology of it will play out…starters do one of three things when they’re replaced:

      1. Some guys go crazy and bail on the team…they literally quit and walk out on the team…I’ve seen a guy leave the rink before the rest of us finished the game…obviously Fleury didn’t do that

      2. Other guys go into a shell and secretly hope the team collapses so they can feel vindicated somehow…and usually don’t play too hard if they have to go back in at some point…obviously it’s difficult to know if Fleury feels this way

      3. And a lot of guys just stay quiet and wait for a shot (they usually expect another shot)…it doesn’t mean they’ll play any better but they’re in the right frame of mind at least…this seems like Fleury

      Guys should never apologize to the team for their play if it is an honest effort…he needs to just lay low, support Vokoun and be a good teammate until his number is called…

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