The Penguins cancelled their optional practice Wednesday, but deposed goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury still went on the ice in sweats. For a long time, he skated from one end of the Consol Energy Center to the other, a solitary figure in the eerily quiet building, a sad figure in many ways. His usual smile was absent. He seldom looked up. He just stickhandled through imaginary traffic, banging the puck off the boards, collecting it and steaming toward the goal, firing it into an empty net and scoring at will.
You know, sort of like the way the New York Islanders did against him in Games 2-4 of their Stanley Cup playoff series.
Not to be a wise guy.
How interesting it would have been to offer Fleury a penny for his thoughts. Actually, a penny wouldn't have been nearly enough on this significant day in Penguins history. Only a little while earlier, coach Dan Bylsma had given Fleury word that he will be replaced by Tomas Vokoun tonight when the team plays the Islanders in Game 5 at Consol Energy Center. That will end a streak of 79 consecutive playoff starts for Fleury, who wasn't made available to the media. During that amazing run, he experienced the highest of highs, making 23 saves in a 2-1 road win against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the 2009 Cup final. Now, he is forced to deal with the lowest of lows. He quickly left the building after his blow-off-steam skate.
Not that many around here are feeling too sorry for Fleury. For one thing, he makes $5 million a year. For another, he played poorly in the 6-4 Game 4 loss Tuesday night on The Island. It was easy to defend his play earlier in the series. His teammates abandoned him, allowing a ridiculous 42 shots in a 4-3 Game 2 loss, then another silly 36 in a Game 3 the Penguins somehow won, 5-4, in overtime. But there was no defending Fleury Tuesday night. A couple of the Islanders' leaky goals ranked among the worst he has allowed. He didn't give his team much chance to win in a game when its four goals should have been enough.
Going with Vokoun probably is the right move by Bylsma, although the belief here is we have not seen the last of Fleury this spring. Certainly, it is the easy call because of the nearly unanimous outcry for Vokoun from Penguins fans and the local media despite his 3-8 career playoff record and the fact he hasn't played in the postseason since 2007. But anyone who thinks benching Fleury will solve all the problems that suddenly have popped up all over for the No. 1-seeded Penguins is crazy. See the paragraph above that mentioned the 42 and 36 shots. Note their 31 combined giveaways in Games 2-4, including a killer by Evgeni Malkin in the third period of Game 4 that led to the winning goal by Islanders star John Tavares. There also is this: The Penguins blew a two-goal lead in the second period of Game 2, a two-goal lead in the third period of Game 3 and a one-goal lead in the third period of Game 4.
We're talking meltdown.
"Obviously, we haven't played our best hockey yet," Penguins defenseman Paul Martin said Wednesday.
The Penguins are stacked with incredibly skilled players and future Hall of Famers, but they are at their best when they play a simple game. Forget the pretty cross-ice passes and drop passes that have led to turnovers and scoring chances for the Islanders, who, at times, have overwhelmed the Penguins with their speed and opportunism. Dump the puck deep and forecheck like crazy. It worked for the Penguins in Game 1, a 5-0 win that fueled the expectations of a sweep of the eighth-seeded Islanders. It worked in Game 4 when winger Matt Cooke rattled the Islanders' Matt Carkner behind the New York cage, leading to a goal by teammate Brandon Sutter. Much of the time, though, it has worked for the Islanders.
"They're playing great. They're playing aggressive," Penguins winger Jarome Iginla said. "We plan on matching that and finding a way to win this series."
It might take other personnel moves. It won't be surprising if Bylsma puts Iginla at right wing on a line with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis and moves Chris Kunitz to the line with Malkin and right winger James Neal. That would allow Iginla and Neal to play on their preferred right side. It also might be time to bring back Tyler Kennedy and sit Tanner Glass, who played just 5:26, 8:08 and 4:55 in the past three games. It might even be time to put Kennedy back on the third line with Cooke and Sutter and drop Brenden Morrow to the fourth line with Jussi Jokinen and Craig Adams. What has Morrow done in the series?
Regardless of the players Bylsma puts on the ice, the Penguins still should win this series. They will win it. They are better than the Islanders. They have more skill, more depth.
"We know what we have to do," Crosby said.
Vokoun should be a big part of it, but he can't do it alone. The Penguins' 18 skaters can't afford to take another night off.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published May 9, 2013 4:45 AM