PITTSBURGH -- You can talk about the tinkering with the line combinations, the introduction of a couple of energy guys to the lineup and the second-period explosion of offense, but the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-0 victory in Game 5 -- and the restaking of a claim on a series that appeared to be slipping away -- begins and ends with the 36-year-old netminder who calmly skated into his first playoff game in six years.
The poor play of Marc-Andre Fleury might have made the decision to banish him to the end of the bench in favor of Tomas Vokoun an obvious one for head coach Dan Bylsma, but that does not diminish the uncertainty that came with such a decision at such a critical juncture of a playoff series.
All of which made Vokoun’s profound impact on the game even more compelling, especially during the first period, when the New York Islanders threatened to build on their 6-4 win in Game 4 that had evened this first-round series at two games apiece.
Exuding an ultra-cool that belied the nervousness he admitted he felt when he skated onto the ice for his first playoff tilt since April 20, 2007 -- when he was a Nashville Predator -- Vokoun held the Penguins in the game as the Islanders came in waves.
A Pittsburgh team that had looked sloppy and disorganized for long periods of time during Games 2, 3 and 4 continued to make poor puck decisions and commit careless turnovers.
The Isles didn’t get a shot on net until the 7:33 mark of the first period, but then poured 14 at Vokoun in the last 12-plus minutes.
If it seemed like the skilled Penguins, the NHL’s most dominant offensive team during the regular season, never had the puck, it’s because they didn’t.
But for all of that, at the end of the first period it was still 0-0.
“I thought in particular in the first period and early in the second, he had a number of big stops,” Bylsma said after the Pens opened up their third one-game lead in this series.
Game 6 is set for Long Island on Saturday night.
Funny how it goes, how one part of the game leads inexorably to another, but the Penguins responded to Vokoun’s strong play by cutting down on their mistakes and slowly taking back control of the game, pressuring the Islanders.
A terrific pass from a struggling Kris Letang freed Tyler Kennedy -- inserted in the lineup for the first time in the playoffs -- on a breakaway, and he scored to make it 1-0 one-third of the way through the second period.
Moments later, Islanders star John Tavares unleashed a bullet that Vokoun calmly kicked out with his left pad. Later Tavares would dance through the Penguins’ defense, only to have Vokoun calmly swallow up his shot.
“He played pretty good. He was pretty calm out there and looks like he was ready to go tonight,” offered Letang, who would also add a power-play goal in the third period for the Penguins.
In the two Islanders wins in Games 2 and 4 -- and even in the Penguins’ overtime win in Game 3 -- the Penguins did not get those stops. They did not get the statement save, the save that says, "Sorry, not tonight."
On Thursday, they finally got those saves from a journeyman netminder who had played in just 11 postseason games in his entire career before interrupting Fleury’s streak of 79 straight playoff games for Pittsburgh.
In stopping all 31 Islanders shots he faced, Vokoun earned his second career postseason shutout. The first was nine years ago against Detroit.
“It feels, obviously, good. It’s been longer than I remember to be in a playoff game. Obviously feels good to win the game,” he said.
“I was a little bit nervous, to be honest, the whole day. You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t. I haven’t played [for a] long time in playoffs so you kind of -- it’s hard to remember ... what to expect. But I got a couple of fortunate bounces. [The] puck also got through and I was kind of tight, but the puck stayed under my pad, and from that moment on I started feeling kind of better and started moving well. After that I felt pretty good."
Late in the second period, captain Sidney Crosby powered between two Islanders defensemen and snapped home the Pens’ third goal in a span of 6:35.
Suddenly, the Islanders more closely resembled the timid team that was beaten 5-0 in Game 1, and the Pens more closely resembled the team that so many had picked to breeze through this series and through the Eastern Conference.
“I thought they tilted the ice on us,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said.
“They played harder than us,” he added. “They won the territorial battle.”
The Kennedy goal was key because it was the first one, but Vokoun saw it differently, as he and Kennedy have both been among that group of players outside the everyday lineup.
“It’s hard, obviously, for those extra players -- you don’t play, and sometimes that’s frustrating. We talked about that before, for the guys who are not playing at the time, to stay positive and work and you never know when you’re going to get a chance,” Vokoun said.
“I’ve been with TK [Tyler Kennedy] the whole time, and he was doing extra -- being on the bike and kept a great positive attitude, and he got rewarded today with the big goal for our team. Obviously that’s a huge thing -- [to] score [the] first goal in a game like that."
Although he was talking about Kennedy, Vokoun might just as well have been talking about himself -- the idea that sometimes there is a reward for sticking with it, for not just being ready but being patient, too.
Before Game 5, Vokoun talked about how he didn’t know whether he’d ever get another shot at playing in the playoffs again, and said that he wanted to enjoy the moment.
With the crowd chanting "Vooo, Vooo, Vooo," it's safe to say he did just that.
“Crowd's been great whole year," he said. "Every game we play here, it’s fun.
"It wasn’t always so for me, so I can appreciate when you have an environment like that to play in."