Kovacevic: Pens must adjust, but not in net
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Tomas Vokoun is the goaltender.
Let's start right there, before I even get going with this column of wholly unsolicited advice for the Penguins heading into their next Stanley Cup playoff series with the Senators, because that's got to come first.
There's no need to care about Marc-Andre Fleury's psyche or his status as the franchise goaltender or what might happen further along in this postseason.
This isn't about Fleury. It's about the team.
And it isn't about winning the championship. It's about getting through the round.
It is about Vokoun.
He was entrusted with the very tall task of stabilizing a team that had completely lost its compass against the Islanders. His replacing Fleury was even announced with an unusual news conference in which Dan Bylsma praised him for everything short of igniting Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution.
And Vokoun not only came through with a Game 5 shutout but also went above and beyond in Game 6 when the team again floundered.
He was exceptional.
You don't turn your back on the man, and you don't turn your back on the team that pays attention to messages like that.
Vokoun is the goaltender.
Why is this even a thing?
Oh, wait, it's because after Game 6 on Saturday night, Bylsma said this when asked about Vokoun: “He stayed really strong as the game went on. When we were pushing and activating our defense, they got some odd-man breaks. He made two really gigantic saves for us. Those were huge saves, huge moments for us. I thought he played an outstanding game.”
And he closed with this regarding Vokoun playing against Ottawa: “We're going to enjoy the fact that we got four wins and are moving on before we talk about moving forward.”
Nothing to discuss, coach. Just read the first part of your quote again.
That's not to suggest, though, that a broader status quo will cut it.
The Senators don't attack with the Islanders' speed — few teams do without a fast-forward button — but they're far better in goal with Craig Anderson. They're deeper, they're tougher, they're sharper defensively and they can be devastating on the power play with Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar on the points. They'll present very different matchup challenges.
Still working from the back out, I'd go back to Deryk Engelland over Simon Despres. Besides Engelland's ability to cancel out a big boy like Ottawa's Chris Neil, Despres didn't show much against the Islanders, to be kind. If the Penguins' primary reason for playing Despres is to force partner Kris Letang to play more conservatively — they won't say so, but it is — that's pretty weak.
If the staff wants Letang to stay back, tell him to stay back. Two minuses don't make a plus.
Up front, Tyler Kennedy and Joe Vitale richly have earned staying in the lineup, almost as much as Vokoun. But that doesn't mean Jussi Jokinen and Beau Bennett should be buried. Both bring skill, which could become critical if Anderson starts looking impregnable, and Jokinen in particular brings a proficiency on faceoffs.
Jokinen brings something else: He's left-handed.
Don't laugh at this, but when the Penguins won Jan. 27 in Ottawa, I heard much discussion at the morning skate up there about the team feeling Anderson had trouble with lefty shots. Sure enough, when the game went to a shootout, Bylsma lined up three lefties — Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Evgeni Malkin — and they embarrassed Anderson by converting all three attempts for the ‘W.'
“I let my guys down,” Anderson would say. “You have to make at least one save.”
There are no shootouts in the playoffs, of course, and breakaways are rare. But, hey, an edge is an edge, even if psychological.
The Penguins' other big switch this series will be mental, too, and it might be biggest of all.
Unlike the mostly respectful round with the Islanders — the way the teams were glowing about each other Saturday after handshakes, you half-expected James Taylor to break out in song — this one comes with an overflow of nasty history on and off the ice ranging from Karlsson vs. Matt Cooke, to Eugene Melnyk's CSI: Ottawa crew vs. Matt Cooke, to the toilet-humor Ottawa Sun tabloid vs. Matt Cooke, to … well, you get it.
Bylsma is great at dismissing such distractions, but he and Ray Shero, a powerful figure in the Penguins' locker room in his own way, need to make sure that's across the board. Especially with Cooke, who often pays too much attention to the circus-type stuff.
No need for three rings when one is the goal.
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