Raise your hand if you thought the Pittsburgh Penguins would face a critical and potentially ‘must-win’ game five tonight in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. OK, Islanders’ fans, you can put your hands down now. The fact that the New York Islanders are in the position they are should not be totally surprising considering the strong finish they had to the regular season.
It’s just that Pittsburgh entered this playoff series as one of the two favorites to win the Stanley Cup during this abbreviated National Hockey League season. I fully expected them to win this series in no more than five games and advance to the second round. With their mix of good goal-tending and tremendous offensive firepower, the Pens seemed like an obvious choice, along with Chicago, to get to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Now here we are with the Penguins and Islanders tied at two game apiece. They now are set to play what amounts to a best of three series and the East’s number seed is making a change at goalie. Marc-Andre Fleury is being pulled tonight in favor of Tomas Vokoun. While it isn’t unprecedented, it is pretty rare for a Stanley Cup favorite to be switching goaltenders during the playoffs unless their is an injury involved.
Through four games, Fleury is giving up 3.4 goals per game and that isn’t even close to getting it done even with Pittsburgh’s offensive prowess. Although Fleury has a shutout win in the series, he has not been all that good on a consistent basis and to be fair, not all of this can be laid at the feet of one-time Stanley Cup Champion.
Pittsburgh has not played good defense and you could argue that the Islanders have actually outplayed the Penguins in three of four games. The one loss out of those was an overtime loss where the Isles let it slip away. Regardless of who the net-minder is for the Pens, the defense must do a better job of clearing the puck and clearing traffic from in front of the net.
In Vokoun, the Penguins aren’t exactly turning to ‘Swiss cheese.’ He was very solid this season when he played going 13-4 with a goals against average of 2.45. He also added three shutouts to Fleury’s one during the regular season. If, and this is a big ‘if,’ Vokoun plays well and gets this team two wins to advance to the second round, will he stay in net? Coach Dan Bylsma will be the guy making that decision and it is far from an easy one.
With the spotlight on the goaltender, this would be an excellent time for captain Sidney Crosby to step forward and take over the series. He’s third on the team in the playoffs so far with six points but he is also -3 on the ice. While I have never been one to put a ton of credence into plus/minus ratings, the playoffs can often be a different story. Crosby can do himself and the Pens a great service by playing well and putting the puck in the net early taking pressure off of Vokoun.
Tonight in the NHL
Ottawa at Montreal (Sens lead 3-1)- The Habs were just 24 seconds from tying the season Tuesday but the Sens struck and then won in overtime for a 3-1 lead. I expect a Montreal win tonight.
Minnesota at Chicago (Blackhawks lead 3-1) – The Wild have serious issues with injuries to their goalies and are extremely undermanned. I like Chicago to end the series tonight.
New York at Pittsburgh (series tied 2-2) – I have every reason to believe the Islanders win this game tonight but even rusty, I think Vokoun does enough to earn a hard-fought win tonight for Pittsburgh.