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Kovacevic: Vokoun not Pens' Plan B anymore

| Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 10:15 p.m.
The Islanders' Casey Cizikas scores past the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Niskanen (2) during the third period Tuesday, May 7, 2013, in Uniondale, N.Y.
The Islanders' Casey Cizikas scores past the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Niskanen (2) during the third period Tuesday, May 7, 2013, in Uniondale, N.Y.

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Marc-Andre Fleury owns a Stanley Cup ring, a stranglehold on the Penguins' record book and a special level of athleticism that, in and of itself, annually sustains his status as one of the NHL's elite performers at his position.

He also can't stop Kyle Okposo shots from behind the net once the playoffs come around.

And he can't stop cross-continental floaters from weak-shooting defensemen Brian Strait and Mark Streit — three in all, none of which, ironically, went straight — once the playoffs come around.

And he can't — nor can anyone else — defend another epic playoff stinker Tuesday in the Penguins' stomach-churning 6-4 loss to the Islanders in Game 4 of their first-round series at Nassau Coliseum. Not after six more goals on 24 shots with all of those except John Tavares' winner squarely on his slender shoulders.

“I'm not happy, that's for sure,” a despondent Fleury told reporters at his stall. “I'm trying hard in practice ... it's frustrating.”

No doubt. But I dare say this is enough.

Tomas Vokoun must be the starter for Game 5 on Thursday in Pittsburgh.

Look, I'm a Fleury backer. Have been for the longest time. Even in the context of this series, until this game, I've felt the Penguins' problems were far more rooted in their stupidity and sloppiness.

But 14 goals on 102 shots over the past three games?

And — sit down for this — 40 goals in his past 10 playoff games?

If Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma already haven't made up their minds on Vokoun for Game 5, they'd better be on the path to doing so. This, remember, is precisely why Shero wisely invested a two-year, $4 million contract in Vokoun. Yes, it was to reduce the regular-season workload that many blamed for Fleury's Philly flop last spring. But it also was for playoff insurance, to have a Plan B.

If not now, then when?

In Games 6 or 7?

After Vokoun has sat stale at the end of the bench for two weeks?

Because that's where this is heading, no matter how hard Fleury's teammates compete in front of him — and they were better in this game than the previous two — or how much Evgeni Nabokov tries to out-flop Fleury in the opposite crease.

Bylsma has been following a self-described “team policy” of not discussing lineup issues in the playoffs, but he strikingly — and tellingly — gave a full answer when asked if he was weighing a change in goal.

This was the answer: “Certainly, Tomas Vokoun is a guy that can step in and play and has had success and won hockey games against this team, was successful this year. We're going to come out for Game 5 with a refocus.”

And what factors, the next question came, would go into using him?

“One of the reasons we wanted Tomas Vokoun was to play hockey games and win hockey games for us. Marc-Andre Fleury is our starting goaltender and started this series and won us some hockey games, made a lot of saves for us ... but we're not going to talk about our starting goaltender for Game 5.”

Oh, right. Got it.

Shhhhhhhhhhhh ...

Think Bylsma himself isn't sweating — no matter how much the Penguins' front office loves him, and they do — the repercussions of failing to win a round with this much talent?

He should be.

They all should be.

The cramped visitors' locker room was a bad place to be after this one. Players could be heard shouting, a few vocally protested when reporters were allowed to enter. Expressions ranged from scowls to ... well, more scowls.

No one was more visibly upset than Fleury, who, after speaking with reporters, whipped a ball of tape against a wall, then slammed his hand against another wall.

It was easily understood.

The Penguins took the lead in the second only to have Fleury spit it right back by first mishandling Travis Hamonic's harmless point shot, then dropping to all fours and allowing potential billiards wizard Okposo to cue another bank shot from the end boards, as in Game 2.

That one bugged Bylsma the most.

“Okposo from behind the goal line ... that was not a good goal,” he said. “And that's on 17 shots through two periods. That hurts.”

The Penguins took the lead again to open the third only to have Fleury muff another flick from the blue line by Streit that skipped off Douglas Murray's skate.

Tavares' winner was more on Evgeni Malkin than anyone — a turnover inside the blue line — but that doesn't diminish that the score never should have been tied at that stage.

And never mind another own goal for the Islanders' sixth.

I still like these Penguins, and I'll repeat that they will beat this speedy, spirited group of Islanders.

But you can't win the Cup if you can't win a round.

Time is ticking.

Time for a change.

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