Gorman: Separating the scary from the shaky

Kevin Gorman
| Friday, May 10, 2013, 10:04 p.m.

A New York Islanders instigator who began the infamous brawl with the Penguins in February 2011, Matt Martin is something of an expert on getting inside an opponent's head.

There is, however, one thing that worries the left winger.

“A goalie with confidence is a scary thing,” Martin said, “and a goalie that's low on confidence is going to be shaky in net.”

That has been the overriding theme of this first-round series between the Penguins and Islanders, where the goaltending has gravitated between scary and shaky. And there's nothing scarier in the Stanley Cup playoffs than a shaky starting goalie, except maybe a scary backup.

Islanders starter Evgeni Nabokov was chased from Games 1 and 5 but beat the Penguins twice in-between. Marc-Andre Fleury scored a shutout in the opener, then allowed 14 goals in the next three games. Penguins backup Tomas Vokoun insisted Fleury had “looked good” despite concerns of a fragile psyche.

“It's funny the way things work for goalies,” Vokoun said before Game 5, a victory that improved his career playoff record to 4-8. “Sometimes the puck is going to go in. That's what happened. Some of my games, I feel my best and I get pulled. Other games it's like, ‘Oh my God, I can't stop anything.' And then you get a shutout.

“The toughest part is that there is nobody to help you. If the pucks go in — you know, defensemen and forwards have the luxury of hoping that maybe the goalie will get it. We don't.”

So allow me to interrupt the singing of “ Vokouna Matata” — “it means no worries” (or is it “means no Fleury?”) — for Game 6 Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum to say this: If the Penguins are going to win the Stanley Cup, they will need their franchise goaltender back where he belongs.

And he wears No. 29, not 92.

That's not to second-guess Dan Bylsma's decision to start Vokoun for Fleury, only to suggest that the Penguins' poor play in front of Fleury had as much to do with the team's struggles as he did. Of course, he allowed some soft goals.

Penguins goaltenders coach Gilles Meloche breaks down video of every goal allowed, looking to see if the goalies are out of position and seeking clues about their confidence, and contends the only bad goal Fleury allowed was the last goal in his last game.

“He just doesn't have puck luck right now,” Meloche said.

Whether it was the defensive letdowns that caused Fleury to get flustered, or vice versa, doesn't matter. A change was necessary.

Even before Vokoun stopped 31 shots in a 4-0 Game 5 victory, there was talk that Fleury's flameout made him expendable.

The notion is that trading Fleury, who has two years remaining on a contract with an annual cap hit of $5 million, would free money needed to sign Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin next year.

Vancouver has found that trading a franchise goalie viewed as damaged goods, like Roberto Luongo, is not that easy.

Never mind that Fleury is only the greatest goalie in Penguins history (apologies to Tom Barrasso), not to mention the friendliest (no apologies to Barrasso) and one of only two in franchise history (Barrasso is the other) to win the Cup.

“It's a different game — the mentality, everything about the position — for goalies than for skaters,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “In bold terms, it's their job to stop the puck. When they give up some goals, they feel bad about it.”

Fleury felt bad about being benched in the postseason for the first time in his career after starting 76 consecutive playoff games. He should feel good about this: His teammates still believe in Fleury.

“There's only one goalie in the net, and he needs to face every puck every night. If there's one that goes off his skate or off a stick, that's not always his fault,” Letang said. “Obviously he's not happy about it. He's pretty mad he's not in the net. He wishes he could get all those goals back … but there's nothing he can do about it. He has to get ready for the next game.”

Fleury likely will be back in goal in these playoffs.

What he must prove is that his confidence, which is what separates the shaky from the scary, isn't as fragile as a flower.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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