Just a week removed from the violent turbulence of this postseason's first round, the Penguins have reached a comfortable cruising altitude, even as they keep their seat belts buckled, but since the FAA prohibits more than three aviation metaphors in any lead paragraph, we probably should start talking hockey.
A Penguins victory tonight in Ottawa would put Dan Bylsma's ultra-talented hockey club nearly halfway to the Stanley Cup, the only standard by which most observers care to measure it. Despite a fairly frantic struggle with the New York Islanders, the Penguins are precisely where their fans and most other experts figured them to be at this point.
They're winning 75 percent of their games again, just as they did in the regular season. They're getting excellent-to-spectacular play from their superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who are atop these playoffs in goals and points, respectively. They've chased three opposing goaltenders from the ice in midgame already. Their special teams are consistently efficient.
And they're putting all kinds of excess pressure on playoff-quality defenses thanks to the roster-finishing artistry of general manager Ray Shero.
On that last point, witness the example of veteran winger Jarome Iginla, who chose Pittsburgh over Boston at the trade deadline to pursue that same aforementioned standard, the only one that has eluded him in a Hall of Fame career.
Iginla tortured two Ottawa goalies with eight shots on goal Friday night, and it was a small miracle the Senators kept him off the score sheet for the first time in these playoffs. He had nine points against the Islanders, equaling the most productive playoff series of this life.
Yet for all their brilliance-is-as-brilliance-does accomplishments to this point, the Penguins have gotten here with Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury wearing a backward ball cap for no less than half the games.
No one expected that.
Not even Shero, who traded a seventh-round draft pick to Washington June 4 for Tomas Vokoun, who is not only 14-1 since March 2, but the only unbeaten goaltender in the NHL playoffs.
"On a couple of goals, I wasn't feeling the greatest today," Vokoun said after a 4-3 victory in Game 2, which featured some spectacular saves but some curious plays as well from a 14-year veteran. "The team played really well and kept it in [Ottawa's] zone for most of the night."
Not all that offensive-zone play was flawless, as it happens, and Vokoun had to turn back breakaways by Colin Greening and Cory Conacher to preserve the lead Crosby's hat trick had erected. But Vokoun also dropped the puck into traffic rather than cover up on a Senators' power play, and the goal Kyle Turris put between his ankles to start the Ottawa scoring wasn't among his better moments.
"Not a good play by me; I was guessing, and he caught me guessing," Vokoun said afterward. "He put it right off my knee a
nd in the net. You gotta square up a little bit better to the puck and expect that he can take a shot. Mistakes happen, but it was definitely a goal that should have been stopped."
Funny, every time Penguins fans hear the phrase, "a goal that should have been stopped," they start thinking about Fleury, and, now that Vokoun finally has turned in a performance with a sub-Fleuridian save percentage of .864, you have to wonder what the Flower's role will be if this postseason progresses to the extent envisioned.
Fleury's talent, when unaffected by his fragile confidence, is of a level that can't be nailed to the bench.
It's a certainty that Bylsma is looking for the right moment to get him back between the pipes, but, like everyone else, Vokoun isn't giving him much to shoot at.
If the Penguins win tonight, I'd be sorely tempted to start Fleury in Game 4, or if Vokoun turns up looking less than confident tonight, I'd likely have him in there before the end of Game 3.
I don't know how Bylsma could wait beyond Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals before bringing back this team's No. 1 goaltender.
Unless he is just as confident that the 4-0 Vokoun is in the middle of a 14-0 roll, or a 14-6 roll, or even a 14-9 roll.
None of those rolls look like Vokoun's role.
Make no mistake, Vokoun is a big reason, perhaps the main reason the Penguins are where everyone thought they'd be at this point.
I'm just not sure he can be the main reason they get where everyone thinks they're going.
Gene Collier: email@example.com. First Published May 19, 2013 4:00 AM