PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Despite a vote of confidence from head coach Dan Bylsma, GM Ray Shero, and captain Sidney Crosby, the fact there is any debate over who should see more time in goal for the Penguins in 2013-14 points to how far Marc-Andre Fleury has fallen.
Fleury finished the truncated 2012-13 regular season a solid 23-8, with a 2.39 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. But after a Game 1 shutout of the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, he regressed sharply and was benched. Tomas Vokoun, in relief, got the Pens past the pesky Islanders, followed by the Ottawa Senators.
Just after their season ended, Shero tersely dismissed rumors the Pens would trade or release their longtime netminder over the summer. Bylsma, evidently, plans to enter the 2013-14 season with Fleury as his No. 1.
When asked at the beginning of training camp if he expected to keep his old job for starters, he began his response with “I hope so.”
Enough said, right?
Vokoun, who went 13-3 in the regular season with a 2.45 GAA, .919 save percentage, and three shutouts, wins the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately battle. Meanwhile, the Pens hope a sports psychologist and a new positional coach, Mike Bales, help Fleury back to his old self.
“Fleury has failed to finish a postseason with a save percentage above .900 and a sub-2.50 goals-against average. Those kinds of numbers are tolerable in the regular season, when the Penguins’ high-powered offense is able to overcome the team’s goaltending mistakes and still win 40-55 games,” Penguins featured columnist Stephen Goss of Bleacher Report writes. “But in the playoffs, when the pace of the games becomes slower and defense is a bigger part of the game plan, Pittsburgh needs a goaltender who will steal games when its offense fails to produce. Fleury isn’t that type of netminder.”
Click here to read the full column by Goss.
Vokoun leveled off beginning in Game 1 of that ill-fated Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins, though he still made a respectable 27 saves in defeat. In Game 2 he was yanked after allowing three goals on 12 shots, and the Pens were well on their way to another stunning elimination, but he himself did not lose that series.
Offensively, the Penguins, who were on a historic goal-scoring pace through two rounds, catastrophically plummeted back toward postseason norms. As advanced mathematics caught up to them, the B’s, to man, may have played a little over their heads, but they also received clever coaching from Claude Julien and equally superb goaltending from Vokoun’s counterpart, Tuukka Rask.
It was a reminder of the comparatively small sample size that makes it difficult to judge Vokoun, who didn’t have a ton of playoff experience prior to signing here. Still, faced with two opponents against whom he matched up well, he helped the Penguins advance twice.
Fleury is second in franchise history with 45 playoff wins and sixth all-time with a 2.73 GAA in Stanley Cup Playoff competition. One of those wins gave the franchise its third championship in 2009. It isn’t fair to overlook his performance that night in Detroit in an era where titles are increasingly rare.
However, after getting embarrassed in home elimination contests against overachieving Montreal and Tampa Bay, then never really finding his game against the Flyers, then allowing Brad Marchand to handcuff him on the first attempt he had faced in almost a month, he may never be viewed the same until he leads the Penguins to another.
The Pens continue preseason play in Chicago against the defending Cup champion Blackhawks at 8:00 Thursday on ROOT Sports.