PITTSBURGH -- Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s hard not to imagine that the Pittsburgh Penguins' Dan Bylsma has just made his most important decision as a head coach.
A man who won a Stanley Cup after just a few months on the job in June 2009, a man who won a Jack Adams Award as the coach of the year two years later to establish himself as one of the top young coaches in the game, has decided he’s seen enough of franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and will turn to veteran Tomas Vokoun to keep his team’s Stanley Cup dreams alive.
Bylsma announced Wednesday afternoon that Vokoun, who has not played in an NHL playoff game since 2007, will start for the Penguins in Game 5 Thursday night.
"We brought Tomas Vokoun in to play big games for us and be a goaltender we can count on to go in and play big games," Bylsma said.
"He’s done that this year for us. He has been very good against the Islanders in the three games that he’s played against the Islanders," the coach added. "We’re getting a guy who’s real capable, a guy going in and being a great goalie for us."
As much as there is a shocking element to the goaltending switch, the bottom line is that Fleury gave Bylsma little choice.
Fleury appears to have reverted almost instantly to the Marc-Andre Fleury we saw bumbling through a first-round loss to Philadelphia a year ago. After shutting out a timid New York Islanders team in Game 1, Fleury has allowed 14 goals in the last three games, two of which have resulted in losses.
Not all the goals are Fleury’s fault, but enough are to suggest this is a goaltender in the middle of a significant crisis of confidence with his team now needing to win two out of three to avoid the embarrassment of being eliminated by an eighth seed for the second time in four years. (The Canadiens dispatched the Pens in the second round in 2010.)
Fleury played Kyle Okposo’s goal from behind the net in Game 4 Tuesday like a bag of hammers, a goal that came with 1:24 left in the second period and allowed the Isles to forge a 3-3 tie going into the third period.
Then, with the Pens pressing for a tying goal late in regulation, Fleury looked like a deer in the headlights, allowing rookie Casey Cizikas to slide in a bad-angle goal to give the Isles a 6-4 victory and knot the series at two wins apiece.
In Game 2, Fleury somehow allowed the carom of an Okposo shot to come off the end boards and end up in the Penguins’ net for what would be the winning goal.
The former No. 1 overall draft pick looks like a netminder who is more than a little surprised when he does make a stop. While his teammates insist just the opposite -- that they still believe in him -- a goalie whose confidence balloon has been popped infects his teammates with the same malady, just as if it were the Ebola virus let loose in the dressing room.
Bylsma declined to discuss how the conversation went when Bylsma told Fleury he would not start Game 5, the first time in 80 Penguin postseason games that No. 29 will not be between the pipes to start.
"Not a conversation I’m going to discuss with you. But I have talked to Marc," Bylsma said.
It’s not just Fleury, of course. The team’s defensive play has taken a step backward, but instead of covering those holes in the fabric, Fleury is tugging at the loose strings, further weakening the tapestry.
"We definitely haven’t played our best hockey," defenseman Paul Martin said.
This isn’t to suggest the Islanders aren’t full value for tying the series. They are. And they are full value because they have realized a weakness in the Penguins goal and are exploiting it, sometimes shooting wide and hoping to catch Fleury overcommitting with rebounds and caroms. Other times, they appear to be shooting at his feet, looking to take advantage of poor rebound control and a lack of positioning.
But the reality is, if the Pens had even average goaltending, they would have won Games 2 and 4.
Yes, Islander netminder Evgeni Nabokov has not provided Conn Smythe-worthy netminding either, boasting a 4.56 GAA and .846 save percentage in the series, but the Islanders are the eighth seed, not a team that was the pick of many observers to cakewalk through the Eastern Conference.
And so the dice have been rolled, and the Penguins will turn to Vokoun, setting up all form of interesting storylines moving forward.
What happens if the 36-year-old, who has played in only 11 postseason games in his career, cannot give the Pens a win in Game 5 Thursday night? Do they go back to Fleury, a man who once upon a time won 30 postseason games between 2008 and 2009, for a must-win Game 6?
What if Vokoun gives you a win in Game 5 but falters in Game 6, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7? Who starts that game?
It was no coincidence that general manager Ray Shero went after Vokoun when free agency began in July. He wasn’t looking for a guy so he could rest Fleury; he was looking for a guy for just this eventuality, someone who could provide quality starts regardless of the time of the season.
Shero said on the eve of the playoffs that the challenges facing Fleury were the same that faced everyone in that room: showing they could elevate their game, especially after last year’s embarrassing defeat to the Flyers.
Vokoun was a solid 13-4 during the shortened regular season, with a respectable .919 save percentage, and was a big part of the Pens’ impressive 15-game win streak and a stretch in the second half of the season where they won 22 of 24 games.
Now he appears to give the Penguins their best chance at salvaging a series that has proved to be wildly entertaining, not to mention far closer than anyone had a right to expect.
The players who spoke to the media Wednesday either were not aware of or would not comment specifically about the goaltending change. Neither Vokoun nor Fleury was made available.
Still, Jarome Iginla talked about the dynamic of this series being as tight as it is and how it might actually benefit the Penguins.
"I think you enjoy it," Iginla said. "We get ready for a bigger battle than we had last game. And I think you just keep the focus there and love that challenge. I know we have a lot of great competitors in there that feel good today, that feel good and are excited to play tomorrow and are looking forward to it."
However the goaltending drama unfolds over the coming days, it’s hard to imagine that this move does not start the clock on Fleury’s time in Pittsburgh.
This playoff year was his opportunity to prove he was mentally tough enough to regain his form of 2008-09. Thus far he has failed, and in that failing, he has lost the confidence of the management and coaching staff.
Can he get it back?
Fleury is under contract through the 2014-15 season at an annual cap hit of $5 million with a limited no-trade clause.
It’s amazing to think that we sat with Fleury just a few days ago on the eve of this series and chatted about his newborn daughter and his ability to let things go, to move on from poor performances. He talked about how he had taken some time to look at the mistakes of the Philadelphia series and tried to put that series behind him.
But what was it that Bob Dylan sang, "But all the while I was alone the past was close behind"?
As it turns out for Fleury, the distance between the past and the present isn’t so far at all. In fact, it appears the two are the same, which has forced Bylsma into a decision that has altered the foundation of this team.