When it comes to strictly opinion based writing, I would estimate about 85-90% of feedback I get from Penguins fans is in agreement with my argument. I do not expect this to be one of those articles..
All the signs point to the team needing to go back to Fleury at some point. But, let’s get this out of the way too- I’m under no illusions that Fleury is what he was in 2008 or 2009, when he was one of the playoffs best goalies and, arguably on most nights, one of the team’s best players. Think of the toe-save on Jeff Carter, or the breakaway save on Alex Ovechkin or the last-second desperation stop on Nicklas Lidstrom. Fleury was the right man for the job back then, and I think (its opinion writing after all) he's still the only option for steering the Pens back into the Stanley Cup finals now.
That isn't to say I'm ignoring what we've seen lately. Fleury, simply put, has been the worst playoff goalie in the past two seasons. His meltdowns against the Flyers last spring, or the Islanders this spring exude exactly 0 confidence. On the other side of the coin, Tomas Vokoun has long been an above-average to stellar goalie. There’s no denying that either. There’s also no denying Vokoun was 10 times better than Fleury against the Islanders, and if not for Vokoun, the Pens would have gotten bounced in the first round.
So why in the world would I think that Fleury should go back in for Game 1?
Pretty much everyone agrees Marc-Andre Fleury has the physical tools to be a goalie that can win games. Sure, his glove hand occasionally fails him (who’s doesn’t when NHL shooters are targeting it) but his reflexes and athleticism makes him an above-average player. The knock on Fleury, as it ever was, is mental based. Is he setting himself up in the proper positioning? Are his mechanics sharp? Mentally, is he sound and confident? If the answer is yes, Fleury is a goalie who can win a lot of games and have a reasonably good save percentage, as he’s done the past two regular seasons compiling a 65-25-4 record to go along with a .914 save percentage. He's not just a guy who was good 4 or 5 years ago, he's had 2 good regular seasons in a row.
Fleury’s mental makeup had to be at an all-time low last week, knowing that he wasn’t capable of making saves and watching goal after goal go in. Then getting the hook.
Dan Byslma will start the goalie he believes is mentally prepared the game. Bylsma’s around the team and knows more about hockey psychology than you and I combined (seriously he's written books). If Bylsma thinks that Fleury has kept the right attitude and is capable of putting the past behind him and moving on for a fresh start, that’s good enough for me. This is a huge decision and if Bylsma goes back to Fleury, it will have to inspire confidence in the goalie and give him a boost.
But, confidence isn’t going to keep pucks out of the net, and it isn’t going to last long for MAF if he lets one or two in.
Tomas Vokoun turns 37 in six weeks’ time and his injury history list is as long as my arm (and I have long, spidery arms). Taking nothing away from Vokoun, who again I’ll point out undoubtedly saved the Penguins season, he’s also a guy who probably isn’t going to keep up a high-level of play for three more rounds of intense NHL playoff action.
Check those out if you haven't seen them, the premise is that goalies that are relied on to play back-to-back or several games in a row usually slip statistically as a result. While most playoff games are not back-to-back, I think it’s fair to take into account Vokoun’s stamina and ability to keep a high level of play given his age. It’s also important to note he hasn’t had a starter’s full-time workload since 2010.
In my opinion, a fresh Vokoun is a more capable Vokoun and he’s fitted for a backup goalie, or almost a “closer” in baseball that can come in late in a series with little to no warmup (and heavy pressure) and calmly be able to win some games. It’s not a perfect situation or a usual one in hockey, but here we are.
If not now...When?
If you believe that the Pens aren’t going to make it to the finish line successfully without Marc-Andre Fleury (as I tend to) then you have to go back to him at some point. Turning to Fleury after Vokoun struggles or loses a game I think increases the pressure on Fleury and won’t give him much of a boost.
He's not going in then because they believe in him, he's going in because they have no other choice.
Whether or not you think that's objective is up to you and I understand how opinions should vary. High paid goalies who have been professionals for 10 years shouldn't be in this position, and even the biggest Fleury fan would have to concede that.
But the point is, when is it going to be most favorable for the team and for this goalie to go back in? Is it in a more pressure-filled situation when the Pens are coming off a loss and the series is either tied (at best) or the Pens are facing elimination (at worst)? Is that when you really think Fleury is going to have the best chance of success?
Or is it best to try and turn the page on the past, plug him up for the fresh series and see what happens? I don't think anyone knows if Fleury could be OK (like his shutout in Game 1 vs the Isles) or not be able to stop anything (like Games 3-4). That is an unknown and a risk that he might meltdown yet again. But if he's the franchise goalie, you have to give him the chance to right the ship one more time.
The decision to start Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 1 ought to give MAF a confidence boost and it also serves to keep Vokoun in the wings, where hopefully he’ll be a more fresh and capable player if needed. There is no ideal time to make a goalie change in the playoffs, it usually means through performance or injury something isn’t going right. Which makes this a tough decision, because Vokoun obviously hasn’t stumbled and is the reason the Penguins are in the second round of the playoffs.
But with a fresh series, the Penguins have a chance to start fresh. No matter what, Fleury definitely has to be on a short leash, and he should know it. The guy has a .860 save percentage in the last two playoffs, a truly brutal number that’s reflective of his inability to make a save in the manner that NHL goalies just have to make, especially this time of year when the stakes are highest.
Regardless of all that, and there’s no point into diving into the psyche of a broken goalie too much, the Pens just need to go with the guy they think can win a game. If that guy isn’t Fleury (and it wasn’t in Games 5, & 6 last series) then hitch the wagon to Vokoun and we’ll see how far he can take it. It’s just that sooner or later I think that #29 is going to get the call, and it’s better to do it on the terms most favorable for success. I’d roll the dice and bet on the team’s franchise goalie for Game 1 and give him another opportunity. Then you can always reassess as the game goes on.