There might just be a few echoes still emanating from CONSOL Energy Center that sound something like this: “VOOOOKOOOOUUUN!”
That’s because on Thursday night in his first playoff start since he was with the Nashville Predators on April 20, 2007, Tomas Vokoun looked like he was made to play in such a high-pressure situation. He anchored the Penguins on their way to a 4-0 win over the New York Islanders that sends the series back to Long Island with Pittsburgh holding a 3-2 series advantage and the chance to clinch in Game 6.
The veteran netminder stopped all 31 shots he faced for his second career shutout, leading the crowd to pronounce its drawn-out “Vokoun” chant after each and every stop.
“It was a great atmosphere,” Vokoun said. “It’s been longer than I remember to be in a playoff game. It obviously feels good to win the game and I think we played a good game.”
Vokoun’s only other playoff shutout came with the Predators on April 13, 2004 against Detroit. Vokoun became the eighth goalie in Penguins history to record a shutout in the playoffs, the 20th overall. He joined Ron Tugnutt (April 13, 2000 vs. Washington) as the only goaltenders in team history to record a shutout in their first playoff game with Pittsburgh.
Despite being tested frequently in the first period when he faced 14 shots, Vokoun played solid and made all the saves he needed to make to keep the Penguins right where they wanted to be in this game. And he looked more comfortable as the game went on.
“We were a little tentative at the start, but as the game went on we started playing our hockey,” Vokoun said. “I was a little bit nervous, to be honest, the whole day. I think you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t and I haven’t played in a long time in the playoffs, so it’s hard to remember some years ago what to expect.”
It didn’t take long for him to gain his bearings, as Vokoun’s play allowed the Penguins to settle into their game throughout the next frame – leading to a dominant 3-0 second period. With the unavoidable scrutiny the team faced after allowing six goals to the Islanders in Game 4 on Tuesday that evened the series 2-2 and made Vokoun Pittsburgh's first playoff starter not named Marc-Andre Fleury since Johan Hedberg in 2001, it was critical for him to step into the crease and provide a sense of stability and a calm, cool and collected presence. And he did.
But it was also critical for his teammates to be better at helping their goalie out – and they were.
“He was solid,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “Hopefully we didn’t make things too tough on him. We didn’t do a great job of helping (Marc-Andre Fleury) out and wanted to make sure we did a better job in front of our goalie. So he made some good saves, but I think we did a better job in front of him and keeping the puck down in their end a bit more.”
He did just that and then some, as Vokoun’s dominance of the Islanders – he won all three of his regular season starts with a .90 goals-against average and .970 save percentage, has spilled over into May for at least one game.
This is a critical factor entering the series’ final (potential) two games in two respects: It provides the Pens with that much needed sense of comfort in net and it forces the question of whether or not some level of doubt could potentially creep into the Islanders’ locker room this weekend.
It also must be noted that the Penguins’ defense was much improved from its performances over the previous three games. The defense covered all 200 feet of the ice with a ferocity it hadn’t shown past Game 1.
Even in the Isles’ 14-shot first period, each shot allowed through to Vokoun had little to no chance of hitting the back of the net as New York was forced to fire a majority of its shots from the perimeter with Vokoun ready in prime position to make the stop. And any rebounds were quickly cleared by the Penguins’ defensemen and forwards that circled low to assist.
“The Islanders are a team that puts the puck on the net, so shots are not always an indicator of what’s going on,” Vokoun said. “But saying that, sometimes it’s tough. Shots from the boards can go in and you never know.
“I think as the game went on, we played how we want to play. We kept it simple, we got in their zone and that’s where we want to play.”
This was a team’s effort, but Vokoun had to be the one to keep them out of the net. He did a stellar job of getting the Penguins back on track and, for a 36-year-old goalie making his first playoff start in six years, looked just as the Penguins and their fans hoped he would: like he was made for this moment.