Vokoun and Rask Hold Key to East
PITTSBURGH – The NHL’s most unlikely postseason success story is nearly bald, his hairline an unwitting casualty to three decades spent hidden under a goaltender’s mask.
All those long winters – including 16 in the best league in the world – never led to long springs, however, for Tomas Vokoun.
Halfway through the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs the two-time All-Star turned journeyman backup holds the key to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ playoff hopes. He is, for the first time in his life, the “hot goalie” during the most important time of year.
Heading into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Bruins tonight, Vokoun’s numbers appear to be a misprint. Seven starts. Six victories. One very stoic and largely anonymous presence at the back of Pittsburgh’s star-laden attack.
Vokoun insists he’s trying not to think about what it all means, with varying levels of success.
“You just know that you’re playing well, you’re trying to do the right things,” Vokoun said. “You try not to treat it any differently, even if you know the stakes are just getting bigger.”
NHL history is littered with callow goalies who have ended up lifting the Cup. Martin Brodeur was 22. Patrick Roy was 20. Ken Dryden was 23. Jonathan Quick was 4-8 in the playoffs before going 16-4 and leading the Los Angeles Kings to the championship at 26.
Vokoun is at the opposite end of his career but enjoying the same kind of coming-out party. It’s uncharted territory for a player acquired for a mere seventh-round pick last summer as an insurance plan should Fleury falter.
The pressure can get unnerving, which is a well known fact to Boston’s Tuukka Rask.
The Bruins were on the cusp of a berth in the conference finals in 2010 with a 22-year-old Rask leading the way. Boston took a 3-0 lead over Philadelphia in the second round when the season suddenly imploded. A 5-4 overtime loss in Game 4 morphed into three more defeats, including a 4-3 collapse in Game 7 when Rask squandered a three-goal, first-period lead.
Though he played 29 games the following season, he didn’t see a second of ice time in the playoffs as Tim Thomas carried the Bruins to their first title in nearly four decades.
Rask’s role (and his view) will be much more involved this time around.
Of course, the high-flying Penguins have a way of creating issues. They are averaging 4.27 goals per game, the highest scoring average at this point in the playoffs in 20 years.
A highly efficient power play and a remarkably skilled roster led by former MVPs Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin helps.
Still, for all its considerable firepower, Pittsburgh is not invulnerable. The Penguins were similarly loaded three years ago when they ran into Montreal’s unheralded Jaroslav Halak in the second round. The then-24-year-old became impenetrable as the series wore on and the Canadiens won in seven games.
“We have to make (Rask) uncomfortable,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said.
In the end, whichever goaltender finds his comfort zone is the one that will extend his team’s season into the first days of summer. It’s a ride Vokoun is intent on enjoying.
“This is what you play for,” he said.