Goalies often win or contend strongly for the Conn Smythe Trophy for most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs. After all, who wins the Cup with bad goaltending? And a great goalie can steal a game, a series or a tournament.
But for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the goalie situation is a bit of a dilemma, even as they celebrate a first-round triumph over the New York Islanders and prepare to play the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
Do the Penguins stay with backup Tomas Vokoun, who gave up three goals in the last two games (both victories) as the Penguins took the conference quarter-finals in six games? Or do they bring back first-stringer Marc-André Fleury, who was pulled from Game 4 and acted upset on the bench with his subpar performance and a 3.40 goals-against average?
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma didn’t care to address the subject Saturday night after Brooks Orpik scored at 7:49 of overtime in Nassau County Coliseum to give the Penguins a 4-3 victory. Vokoun stopped 35 of 38 shots. In Game 5, Vokoun had a 4-0 shutout.
“We’re going to enjoy the moment, the fact that we got four wins and we’re moving on before we talk about what is going to happen with our goalie,” Bylsma said. Fleury was the Penguins’ goalie when they last won the Stanley Cup, in 2009.
The Penguins and Senators have met three times in the playoffs and Ottawa has won two of them. The first two games will be in the Consol Energy Center, home of the Penguins, who are top seed in the East.
Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh star, did not express a goalie preference, but said Vokoun made “some huge saves, keeping us in it” Saturday as the Islanders carried play much of the night. Crosby assisted on Jarome Iginla’s goal Saturday. In five games (he missed the first one), Crosby had three goals and six assists.
Coming into the first round, Fleury made Penguins fans nervous because he was blamed in large part for Pittsburgh’s first-round exit last spring. When pulled from New York’s 6-4 victory in Game 4, Fleury hung his head and covered his face with his gloves on the bench.
Pittsburgh’s goalie decision is but one subplot to the series. There’s also the history of verbal sniping between Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray and Crosby, one of three finalists for the Hart Memorial Trophy as most valuable player in the NHL.
Then there is the issue of Matt Cooke, the Penguins’ bruiser whose skate blade cut the Achilles tendon of Ottawa defenceman Erik Karlsson in February.
Despite beating the Islanders, the Penguins were often outskated and outhustled by the young New Yorkers, making their first playoff appearance since 2007. Perhaps that will ring alarm bells for them as they prepare for a seventh-seeded Senators team that eliminated Montreal in five games.
During the regular season, the Penguins swept all three meetings with Ottawa. But what has happened lately may be more significant. Crosby said the style of the Senators is similar to that of the Islanders.
“They have some fast forwards, a lot of skill, a lot of speed,” Crosby said. “We’re going to have to do a better job of keeping the puck out of our end and out of our net.”