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Kovacevic: This 1-2 punch begins in goal

| Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, 12:11 a.m.
Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokuon makes a first period save against the Rangers at Madison Squarter Garden Jan. 20, 2013. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokuon makes a first period save against the Rangers at Madison Squarter Garden Jan. 20, 2013. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

NEW YORK -- Even on a purely vindictive level, there was so much for the Penguins to treasure from this 2-0 weekend whirl up I-95 that, honestly, it's hard to know where to start.

A small but necessary slice of revenge against the Flyers?

James Neal arranging that devilish three-stars twirl?

How about boos raining from the Madison Square Garden blues all through the 6-3 slashing of the alleged Stanley Cup favorite Rangers on Sunday night?

Or for-real Vezina Trophy goaltender Henrik Lundqvist getting yanked?

Or John Tortorella calling Brooks Orpik's sensational open-ice hit on rookie Chris Kreider “clean” and using it to admonish his own team by saying, “Maybe we need to get whacked around a little more” with a straight face?

Ah, yes. Hockey is back, and in the best way a Pittsburgher could imagine.

Sure, it's just two games. But not only can the Penguins skate into their home opener by reveling in the misery of two detested divisional rivals — the Flyers and Rangers are a combined 0-4 — they also can build off a couple of strikingly sound all-around performances.

“We took care of our end, stayed in our roles and got the job done,” Tyler Kennedy was saying. “That's a nice feeling for all of us.”

Undoubtedly. But from this vantage point high atop both events, what mattered most to the Penguins in these two games was this simple 1-2 equation:

1. Marc-Andre Fleury was really good one day.

2. Tomas Vokoun was just as good the next.

Yeah, that was the backup coolly stopping 31 of 34 shots, including a wild first period in which the Rangers flung 13 pucks and countless bodies his way.

The three goals?

A 5-on-3 rebound, a point-blank tip and a Rick Nash breakaway.

No shame there.

“Tomas was strong,” Dan Bylsma said. “The puck was bouncing a lot, and we know they're a team that gets pucks into that blue-paint area. He had to stand strong, and I thought that was key for us.”

Not remotely surprising.

And you could gather as much from how Vokoun reacted, too.

“You never know how you'll feel after a long time off like we've had,” he said, “but I felt like I was prepared. It was pretty good.”

I couldn't help but ask if a goaltender who's spent so much of his career facing so many pucks — no one in the NHL saw more in the past five years — might actually have welcomed that opening foray by New York.

“Yes, I think so.”

Translation to all that: The man knows what he's doing.

You can see it with a cursory glance at the resume. Games played over his past nine NHL seasons: 69, 73, 61, 44, 69, 59, 63, 57 and 48. Cumulative goals-against average: 2.55, and never higher than 2.68 in any of those seasons.

That's a workload that would even make an old keeper like Eddie Johnston blush.

“This guy, he's a horse,” E.J. was saying the other day. “He's really going to help us.”

I believe that, too, largely because Vokoun is visibly willing to take on a helping role.

It would be easy — and not all that uncommon — for someone with such a background to big-league everybody upon showing up in Pittsburgh. You know, act like being a backup is beneath him. But there's been nothing of the kind. He's hung around well after practice. He's been vocal — pretty loud, actually — during drills. And most important by far, he's let it be known — to the Penguins and the public — that he knows his place.

As Vokoun told the Trib last week, “Listen, there is never going to be a controversy.”

Funny, but the broadest smile in the locker room might have belonged to Fleury, dressing right next to Vokoun.

“The guy's pretty good, huh?” Fleury beamed. “That's going to be huge for us.”

Right. Because Fleury still represents the Penguins' best chance at a fourth Stanley Cup. And Ray Shero's smart addition of Vokoun represents the best chance of Fleury entering the playoffs fresh for a change.

That's why I'd expect the coach will — and should — go right back to Vokoun again next weekend, either in Winnipeg or Ottawa.

Either 1 or 2.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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