As of now, the Pittsburgh Penguins are six games through a stretch of 14 games in 23 days, a heavy path before the playoffs.
There are, in reality, no real worries in front of them. The division lead is double-digits, as it has been for most of the season, and it's secure that the Penguins will win it. Sidney Crosby is rocketing towards just his second scoring title and MVP season (thanks, injuries). There's nothing this team can truly accomplish until the playoffs.
Also, as a quick aside, ever notice that the subset of fans who like to say the previous sentence seem to be the same ones that freak out when the Pens lose a close game to a good team?
Anyways, the playoffs will define the Penguins season one way or another. Either they will embark on a long run towards the Stanley Cup, or be bounced early in disappointing fashion and a lot of hard questions will have to be asked and answered.
As has been the season long story line, a lot of that will fall on Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury has had a very fine regular season, he's been reliable- 3rd in the league in games played. He's been consistent- tied for second league wide in wins, 8th among starting goalies (minimum 30 appearances) in GAA and 14th in save percentage. And Fleury's solid .913 % on while the Pens are short-handed has helped Pittsburgh back to being one of the top PK'ing teams in the league.
That's all nice and well, but the cloud hanging over Fleury's head is those playoffs. We all know the stats by now: since winning the Cup in 2009, Fleury's been the worst goalie in the NHL playoffs, with just a .880 save % and 3.18 GAA to go along with a 14-16 record.
The Penguins had to turn to Tomas Vokoun last year- after Fleury gave up 14 goals in Games 2-4 of the first round against the New York Islanders. Vokoun stabilized the team immediately- putting up a .933 save percentage in 11 games and helping the Pens win six of their next seven games, until their offensive output completely stopped against Boston in the Conference Finals.
And then, of course, Vokoun hasn't been seen since- after having to deal with blood clots, blood thinners and treating that problem. Now, his health seems stabilized and he's practiced with his teammates for now going on six weeks.
Rookie Jeff Zatkoff has had a great season (12-4-1, .915 sv%, 2.55 GAA) but he has no playoff experience and Vokoun saved the Pens bacon just last spring. Could there be a chance that Pittsburgh could turn to Vokoun again?
With only 12 games left in the regular season, time is an issue and not in the Pens favor. According to coach Dan Bylsma, when asked about it over the weekend, Vokoun is not ready yet.
"Tomas has been progressing in terms of his health," Bylsma said. "With the ramp up in practice and number of shots he's taken, he has dealt with some general soreness to that level, but he's not at the point where he's ready to play a game yet."
When asked if Vokoun could potentially return, Bylsma issued a few qualifiers. "Hopefully we'll possibly work him back to that as we wind down here," he would add that Vokoun's return is only a "mere possibility". Reading between the lines of Bylsma's indirect answers, it appears that the coach isn't counting on the old veteran to be "coming through those doors" any time soon, so to say.
That's for good reason, too. The NHL playoffs are starting in just over three weeks, that doesn't leave a lot of time for Tomas Vokoun to get back in the net for a game for the Pittsburgh Penguins. As we've suspected all season long, the Penguins season is going to come down to whether Marc-Andre Fleury can shake his recent playoff demons and provide Pittsburgh with playoff caliber goaltending again like he did in 2008 and 2009.