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Well, maybe after a 46-save performance, it’s time to replace Tomas Vokoun and go back to Marc-Andre Fleury. Win, and you’re in, after all, and the coach Dan Bylsma has to go with the hot hand. Vokoun stopped 27 shots in the regulation period, but not the 28th.

Of course… that’s absurd. Tomas Vokoun has been excellent since taking over in relief of Fleury in advance of the fifth game of the first round against the New York Islanders. Heading into Sunday’s game, the Penguins had won four consecutive, finishing off the pesky New York Islanders and taking the first two from the Pesky Sens.

At the trade deadline I bet a friend of mine straight up, taking The Field vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the New York Islanders made it 5-4 in the fourth game of the series, I thought I might have him beat. “Surely, these are just the Islanders,” I thought. “Good as they are, one of the Bruins or Senators is going to have to take them down, right?”

But then this happened:

That ugly, ugly goal may have saved the Pittsburgh Penguins season. One of the knocks on the Penguins going into the playoffs was goaltending. Could Marc-Andre Fleury backstop that loaded roster? The Penguins have been poor at puck-possession since the trade deadline, having built a team of all finishers and little on defence. What will keep them afloat is hot goaltending, and they had that going into the playoffs.

The problem is that Fleury is not a particularly good goaltender, if all you looked at is the number of saves he makes versus the number of shots he faced. If you look at all the goaltenders who have played more than 230 games since the start of the 2007-2008 season, Fleury is 17th out of 25 in save percentage.

When your backup is Brent Johnson, it becomes more difficult to sit the former No. 1 overall pick for a backup when Fleury struggles, and indeed, he has. He was lights-out in the 2008 playoffs, bringing the Penguins to within two games of the Stanley Cup with a .933 save percentage. But in 2009, the Penguins Cup-winning year, he posted a below average .908. Then .891 in 2010. An .899 in 2011 and a rock-bottom .834 in 2012. This year he was at .891 before being replaced by Vokoun as the starter for the Penguins in the playoffs.

But the Penguins don’t have Brent Johnson or Dany Sabourin as a backup anymore. This season the Penguins picked up Fleury Insurance. It was an expensive policy, requiring the team to give a second year to Tomas Vokoun, a late-30s goaltender. However, Vokoun has been one of the long overlooked gems in the world of net-minding. Out of the 25 goalies with 230 games played since 2007-2008, Vokoun is second to just Tim Thomas in save percentage.

(One note to qualify Vokoun’s save percentage: he’s played in shot-counting havens in Nashville and Florida, where goaltenders always seem to turn up a good save rate. Unfortunately, Hockey Reference doesn’t allow us to sift between “home” and “road” statistics over several years, because it would be interesting to see how Vokoun’s road splits look next to his statistics at home. While he’s a .923 at home over his illustrious career, he’s just a .910 on the road. That still looks good next to Fleury, who is a .914 at home and a .904 on the road, but something worth keeping in mind when comparing Vokoun, or any goaltender that played prominently in Florida or Nashville, to another strictly based on save percentage. Other than a few buildings that measure shots differently, save percentage is a very good statistic.)

Vokoun, like Thomas, is not technically sound. He looks clunky and chaotic in the net, challenges shooters more than a normal goaltender would in 2013, and—unlike Thomas in this case—catches pucks with the wrong hand. But he catches them, at least. Vokoun’s numbers may vastly overestimate his ability, but he’s still a goaltender who will be anywhere between “average” and “good”, which may be all the Penguins need to win out hockey games.

That damn goal. That damn Casey Cizikas goal. Maybe if that goal doesn’t go in, Bylsma continues to use Fleury in Game 5 after the Islanders hold on for a nail-biting 5-4 win (or possibly score in the empty net). After all, none of the other goals in that game were so egregiously gross that it would warrant a change of goaltenders. There were probably one or two that another goalie in the same position may have got to, but all goaltenders are going to make good saves, give up bad rebounds, allow bad goals, and steal games. It’s part of there being such a small talent spread in 2013. You never know what happens in the mysterious alternate universe where Brian Elliott gets to play in a Dan Bylsma system, or where Marc-André Fleury gets thrown to the wolves in Toronto.

That goal, that awful, terrible, weak backhander by Casey Cizikas may have saved the Pittsburgh Penguins’ playoff run. Perhaps Fleury wins out the series against the Islanders. Does he come up big in Game 2 against the Senators like Vokoun did? Does he stop 46 in the third game? It’s all possible, but it’s more likely that the Penguins will get those big performances behind Vokoun, who put up great numbers for years on teams that never scored that couldn’t make the playoffs.

I would like to explore the alternate future where Cizikas’ weak backhander doesn’t make it past Marc-Andre Fleury, and Fleury gets a start in the fifth game of that series. Mostly, though, market being what it is for hockey bloggers, I don’t want to lose that $35 by betting against a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Comments (5)

  1. Vokoun may not be technically sound, but he’s certainly had success with his style over the course of his career. I wonder if in some ways it helps to not be 100% predictable like so many of these “technically sound” butterfly goalies. I’ve seen interviews where Brodeur mentions that he tries to do unpredictable things and change his style to keep shooters on their toes.

    • Good comparison, if on a little bit lower level on TV’s case. They’re both far less inclined to butterfly than, I don’t know, a Bobrovski.

  2. I bet Fleury is in nets before the end of next round

  3. So the gist is that Fleury would have seen them to elimination if he hadn’t let up one too many horrible goals in a single game.

    Suppose that’s fair.

  4. $35 seems like an odd number to bet. Then again, the average case of beer in Ontario is $35…..connection?

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