COMMENTARY | NHL players have already received their last paychecks of the year. The Stanley Cup playoffs are, in a way, extra work put in on their own time. And yet that's one of the things that makes hockey so remarkable; these guys are playing for nothing more than pride and a shot at the Cup, and playing with more passion then they do all season.
Unless you're Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who this spring has been showing all the commitment of a guy forced to work weekends without overtime when he'd rather be at his kid's Little League game, or on the golf course. Or even watching a week's worth of afternoon soap operas on the DVR.
Fleury wasn't really challenged in the Penguins' 5-0 victory in Game 1 of their conference quarterfinal with the New York Islanders. But in the three games that followed, he has given up 14 goals on 102 shots. In Games 2 through 4, Fleury has a goals-against average of 4.49 and a save percentage of .863. Those numbers are inspiring nostalgia - or more accurately, recurring nightmares - for fans who remember last season's performance, when Fleury posted a 4.63 GAA and .834 save percentage in a six-game first-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Thus, it came as no surprise when Penguins coach Dan Bylsma announced on Wednesday that backup Tomas Vokoun would start Thursday night's Game 5 in Pittsburgh.
The big question is whether this move is more short-term or long-term. Is Bylsma intent on sitting Fleury just one game to clear his head, or will he ride Vokoun as long as the Czech veteran keeps winning?
"We brought Tomas Vokoun in to play big games for us," said Bylsma in announcing the move on Wednesday to avoid game-day drama. "He's done that this year for us and he has been very good against the Islanders in three games he's played."
In the three games he played against the Islanders this season, Vokoun was 3-0 with a 0.90 GAA and .970 save percentage. Or more to the point, pretty much the polar opposite of how Fleury's been trending over the past week.
While they won't say it publicly, the Penguins braintrust have to be losing patience with Fleury. After last season's abysmal and embarrassing early exit, the players, coaches, executives and fans all rushed to Fleury's defense with the tried-if-not-true excuses: He was tired, because backup Brent Johnson was too dangerously bad to offer Fleury a break; the defense hung him out to dry too often; he was possibly playing injured.
This season, Fleury had an extended lockout during which to rest; the offseason acquisition and signing of Vokoun gave Fleury someone to not only push him in a friendly competition, but provide a competent replacement to spell him often. Defense leaving him under siege? Except for a poor performance in Game 2, the Penguins blueline has been relatively solid if not perfect, limiting the Isles to just 24 shots in Game 4.
For those goals that Fleury saw fit to knock into his own goal himself and for his "Duck the puck" maneuver in Game 2 which was overlooked because the shot sailed fortunately high over the net, there is no one and nothing else to blame - save for Fleury and his maddening mental lapses.
Perhaps it's time for the Penguins to realize what they've long refused to acknowledge - that Fleury may be a pretty good goalie, but not a real great one. Perhaps it's time to admit that Fleury is just another version of Jean-Sebastian Giguere, Miikka Kiprusoff or Cam Ward - goalies who had one or two stellar moments in the spotlight of the postseason before regressing into steady, durable goalies who could never seem to rediscover the postseason mojo that earned them big contracts.
Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero has long pointed to keeping the Penguins' core of young players intact - Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Fleury. But with the salary cap dropping next season from roughly $70 million to $64 million, and Malkin and Letang entering the final years of their contracts, Fleury's $5-million annual cap hit suddenly looms a lot larger. This isn't to suggest at all that the Penguins should consider trading Fleury - only that his "untouchable" label should be the first to go.
If Game 5 is a momentary breather for Fleury, he'll have his shot at redemption. If it should be his swan song for this postseason, he risks having his legacy in Pittsburgh be more that of a postseason goat than a Stanley Cup hero.
There is no pressure on Vokoun. All of that rests heavily on Fleury to redeem himself, and on the Penguins to decide if he even gets that chance.
Pittsburgh Native Steve Wozniak has covered college hockey and the NHL for almost a decade, mostly for ancient things called newspapers and magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @Swozinator.
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