Ron Cook: Vokoun excels despite nerves

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Rust? What rust? So what if Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokoun hadn't played in 17 days?

Playoff inexperience? What inexperience? So what if Vokoun hadn't played in a postseason game in more than six years and came in with a 3-8 playoff record?

Pressure? What pressure? So what if Vokoun was playing in the most meaningful game of his long NHL career, trying to prevent one of the most hurtful playoff collapses in Penguins history, the thought of which seemingly had many in the team's fan base on serious edge?

None of it bothered Vokoun Thursday night in Game 5 against the New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center, not the rust, the inexperience or the pressure. Certainly, the Islanders didn't get to him. Making an emergency start in place of ineffective Marc-Andre Fleury, he pitched a shutout, made 31 saves, was the game's No. 1 star and led the Penguins to a 4-0 win to give them a 3-2 lead in this first-round series.

Don't be alarmed that coach Dan Bylsma refused to name Vokoun as his starter for what he hopes will be a series-clinching win in Game 6 Saturday night on Long Island. He was just being coy. You knew that when he finished his non-committal response to a question about his next-game starter by saying, "[Vokoun] played pretty good in the game."

No doubt, Vokoun will be in net Saturday night, not Fleury, who had made 79 consecutive playoff starts for the Penguins but was lousy in a 6-4 loss in Game 4.

Interesting thing is Vokoun admitted to being "nervous" Thursday, not so much on the ice once the game started but during the day. It seemed like time moved so slowly. He couldn't wait to get to the rink. He couldn't wait for the first puck to drop. "I wouldn't be human if I wasn't nervous," Vokoun said. "It had been a long time since I played in a playoff game."

The date was April 20, 2007. Vokoun, then with the Nashville Predators, lost an elimination Game 5 to the San Jose Sharks, 3-2. He hadn't played this season since April 22 when he beat the Ottawa Senators, 3-1. Ottawa will be the Penguins' opponent in the next round of the playoffs if they finish off the Islanders.

"I was a little tight," Vokoun said.

The Islanders didn't get their first shot on goal until Michael Grabner put one on Vokoun at 7:33 of the first period. Vokoun dropped the puck, allowing Colin McDonald to put the rebound on net. For a second, Vokoun thought the puck snuck through him.

"I was able to keep it under my pad," he said. "I was fortunate there. As the game went on, I started feeling better."

The Islanders came hard the rest of the period, finishing with 14 shots. But it wasn't until midway through the second that Vokoun had to make a really tough save. Islanders star John Tavares snuck by Penguins defenseman Paul Martin and had a point-blank wrist shot that Vokoun turned away. The Penguins led, 2-0, at the time.

"That was huge," Bylsma said.

Vokoun has owned the Islanders this season. He came in with a 3-0 record and 0.90 goals-against average in four appearances against them. But on this night, he benefitted from a strong game from his teammates. Captain Sidney Crosby was quick to point that out.

"We didn't do a very good job of helping Marc out. We wanted to make sure we did a better job for our goalie. [Vokoun] made some good saves, but, like I said, I think we did a pretty good job in front of him by keeping the puck in the other end."

The Islanders now are the team with major goaltending issues. Actually, they have had them all series. Evgeni Nabokov started Game 5 with a 4.56 goals-against average and .846 save percentage. Those numbers were worse than Fleury's 3.40 and .891.

The Islanders didn't get the big game from Nabokov Thursday night that they hoped to get. He was benched for backup Kevin Poulin after Penguins defenseman Kris Letang scored at 5:43 of the third period on the power play to push the Penguins' lead to 4-0.

Presumably, Nabokov will be back for Game 6.

We know Vokoun will start for the Penguins.

But after that, should the Penguins advance to the second round?

Bylsma will face a much tougher decision. Fleury, 28 and still very much in his prime, is the Penguins' franchise goaltender and is signed through the 2014-15 season at $5 million per year. Vokoun, 36 and nearing the finish line of his career, is signed through next season and will make $2 million. The guess here is Bylsma will go back to Fleury, sooner rather than later.

"Whatever the coach decides is fine by me," Vokoun said. "We have a lot of guys like that in here. We don't care about ice time. We just care about winning."

The Penguins did just that in Game 5, thanks in large part to their nervous backup goaltender.

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Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published May 10, 2013 4:00 AM


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