Kovacevic: Vokoun's message will outlive streak

| Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 12:06 a.m.

Ray Shero's made his share of major moves, as you might have heard lately, but his best of this calendar year probably came on a night when he barely budged.

Flash back to Feb. 20. The Penguins had just taken their season's most traumatic loss, 6-5 to the generally reviled Flyers. As if to rub it in, the specifically reviled Jakub Voracek had a hat trick, including the late winner on the ghastliest of gaffes by Tomas Vokoun.

Shero usually leaves his GM's box high atop Consol Energy Center right after the final horn to head downstairs to his office.

Not this time.

This time, he sat and stared, transfixed at the rink where his team had just made a mess of the highest order.

More than an hour later, he was still there.

It's easier to crack DNA code than to get Shero to discuss his feelings from a moment like that. But I was able to pry this out from a recent talk ...

“I texted Tomas that night,” Shero recalled. “I realized I hadn't talked all that much with him since he signed because of the lockout. I wanted him to know we were behind him.”

The text read as follows: “Tomas, forget about it. Show up tomorrow ready to work -- Ray”

Suffice it to say the message resonated.

“It meant a lot,” Vokoun was saying Tuesday morning. “I've known Ray going back to our time in Nashville. I can tell you I thought of that text like ... like it came from a friend, not my GM. I needed that.”

Maybe that's a good message for right about now, too.

The Penguins' superlative winning streak was stopped at 15 by the Sabres, 4-1, Tuesday night, which somehow didn't seem to sting nearly as much as watching the man who was the streak's architect chased off the ice after four goals on 13 shots.

“It happens,” Vokoun said afterward. “You know, we didn't play with a lot of emotion, and that's not something that's easy to do game after game. It's sad to see the streak end, but ...”

But not like this.

Sure, the fans smartly applauded Vokoun as he and Marc-Andre Fleury switched places, and teammates rose on the bench to tap sticks. It was a nice moment. But this still deserved a better bookend. This was the guy who had allowed four goals — same as Tuesday — on his previous 172 shots over seven wins. The guy whose goals-against average was 0.67 for March. The guy who, upon being emboldened by Shero's text, would admonish his mates that March 7 night in Philly and start what wound up the second-longest streak in NHL history.

“Honestly,” Matt Niskanen said, “you can't say enough for what Tomas has done for us.”

Maybe not, but I'll give it a go.

After Shero's text, Vokoun not only spoke up, but he put up. He showed he can still play at 38, maybe even handle a full-time load if needed.

Good for him.

But better for Fleury.

Ask me, and the real beauty of Vokoun's uprising will be best evident a month from now. Just think back to how Brent Johnson was so shaky as backup down the stretch last spring that Dan Bylsma turned to Fleury night after night. By the time the Penguins made it to Philly for the first round, the Flower had been torn to petals.

This time, Fleury will be fresher, sharper and maybe even more confident for not having as many dips. Let's not forget he's been pretty good, too, with a 2.18 goals-against that's ninth in the league after blanking the Sabres the rest of the way Tuesday.

“He's been there to talk to me, to help me all season long,” Fleury said of Vokoun.

He's pushed Fleury, too.

That's why I wrote in this space last summer that Shero's $2.5 million signing of Vokoun was the best addition he could make. And, yeah, I'll stand by that even after Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow. Nothing supersedes goaltending in the playoffs. Moreover, who's to say that, if Vokoun hadn't swung this whole storyline 180 degrees, Shero ever would have gone shopping in the expensive aisle?

Remember the streak, but forget how it ended.

That's the real message here.

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

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