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Playing time, aggressive approach helping Vokoun

by Dan Rosen
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Tomas Vokoun told Washington's defense corps prior to Wednesday's game against Pittsburgh that he was going to play the puck more, so be ready for it.

The result was Vokoun's best performance as a member of the Capitals in a 1-0 victory against the Penguins. He made 30 saves for his second shutout and the Capitals didn't have many, if any, egregious turnovers deep in their defensive zone that led to scoring chances. In fact, they didn't give much in the way of "Grade A" scoring chances until the final few frantic minutes.

So it's safe to expect Vokoun continuing to play the puck more in games, and he should get plenty of chances if he continues to play the way he did Wednesday.

"I think overall it was a good game because I was more involved in the play and I think I helped the team a lot with the stickhandling," Vokoun said Thursday. "It's something I'm going to try to improve on and be more consistent in it in games to come."

"You know you're going to make mistakes once in a while just like everyone else, but it puts too much pressure on our 'D' and they get hit a lot. This way, it makes a point to the other team. Knowing that you're going to come out to try to stop it, maybe they have to shoot it harder and it's harder to retrieve." -- Tomas Vokoun

Vokoun has been searching for consistency since he arrived in Washington on a surprise one-year, $1.5 million contract during the summer. He did not earn the start in the season-opener as ex-coach Bruce Boudreau went with Michal Neuvirth, and then Vokoun gave up five goals in his first appearance with his new team.

He picked up his game through October, but struggled through most of November and half of December. However, despite giving up four goals over five periods in back-to-back games this past Saturday and Monday, Vokoun said he feels good and seems to have found a rhythm thanks to coach Dale Hunter's constant use of him.

He has matched his season high with seven straight starts, even getting the nod from Hunter on Wednesday despite being pulled Monday in Los Angeles after two periods. Considering his performance against the Penguins, there is no reason to believe he won't start Friday at home against Tampa Bay. Hunter, though, has not said anything as of yet.

"Obviously it's easier on a goalie when you can play like that," said Vokoun, who has a 17-10-2 record, .915 save percentage and 2.56 goals-against average in 30 games. "It's not my decision, and you have to deal with anything, but it's obviously easier on your mental state of mind when you know you're going to play even if you make a mistake."

The key to Vokoun's consistency might be how much and how well he plays the puck from here on out. He does it as a way to stay in the game and help his defensemen, especially against hard-forechecking teams like the Penguins, but said when he arrived in D.C. he was told to stay put in his crease.

It was a vastly different strategy than he was used to during his time with Nashville and Florida, and he realized change was necessary after the game against the Kings. Vokoun called the Kings the hardest forechecking team he's seen all season, and because he didn't play the puck the Capitals' defensemen had a difficult time getting the puck out of the zone.


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Washington lost the game 5-2 as Vokoun gave up four goals on 27 shots; he wasn't blamed for any of them afterwards.

"I think it showed a lot in the game in L.A. (what happens) when you don't come out," Vokoun said. "You know you're going to make mistakes once in a while just like everyone else, but it puts too much pressure on our 'D' and they get hit a lot. This way, it makes a point to the other team. Knowing that you're going to come out to try to stop it, maybe they have to shoot it harder and it's harder to retrieve. For the 'D,' too. If you will stop it you can make a play without them trying to get the puck off the wall."

After seeing how effective Vokoun can be when he plays the puck, Hunter said he's all for seeing more of it. He's also prepared to deal with the odd mistake that creates a scoring chance against.

"You've seen what can happen, too, but it does help a lot," said Hunter, who added that Vokoun's puck retrieval Wednesday allowed the Caps to have clean breakouts out of their zone and got them out of trouble areas. "You have to make the right decisions, but that's hockey. If you can do it, do it. If you're not confident coming out, then you should stay in."

The players in front of Vokoun, especially the defensemen, certainly like the change in strategy. It saves them some angst and it gives them even further confidence that Vokoun is into the game and has their back.

"That helps us a ton and I think that helps him just stay into the game even more," Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. "There are these little spurts where he's not getting enough shots or just outside shots. But he was still coming out and playing it. It's like jumping up into the rush for a defenseman. You just feel more into the game. That's what we saw (Wednesday)."

Capitals forward Troy Brouwer said another bonus is that Vokoun will get the forecheckers thinking, which could open more room for a breakout.

Tomas Vokoun
Goalie - WSH
RECORD: 17-10-0
GAA: 2.56 | SVP: 0.915
"If they're dumping the puck in and he's able to come out and play it and give it to our D-men, their forecheckers don't know where to go, whether they cover the D-men or go to the goalie," Brouwer said. "When he's making saves and plays the puck, sometimes guys let up on it because they think he's going to cover it."

Of course, what is most important in all of this is how Vokoun feels about it, and he's ready to continue playing the puck because it allows him to play a bigger role.

When he feels more into the game, he's a better goalie. The Capitals saw that for years when Vokoun was with the Panthers, and Wednesday they got a glimpse of what could be in their own future.

They like it, and they need more of it.

"It's good to see him get back to his old form," Capitals forward Jason Chimera said. "I'm sure that's going to spark him for the rest of the year."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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