PITTSBURGH -- Even at 36 years old and with 14 seasons of NHL experience, Tomas Vokoun swears he's treating any start he gets like a tryout for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The way Vokoun has been performing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it's become one rather extended tryout. And it's looking more and more as if it might become one that won't end until he and his teammates hoist the Cup.
Vokoun is second in the NHL in save percentage during the playoffs (.941) and he is third among those who have started at least one game in goals-against average (1.85). Those are numbers that prove he belongs as a starter and that he fits in well backstopping the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed as it embarks on the conference finals that begin next week.
Tomas Vokoun - PLAYOFFS
Goalie - PIT
GAA: 1.85 | SVP: 0.941
Still, even if Vokoun's statistics validate the decisions of Penguins general manager Ray Shero to sign him last summer and of coach Dan Bylsma to play him in place of ineffective erstwhile starter Marc-Andre Fleury, Vokoun refuses to take anything for granted.
Even if just about everyone else has.
"I don't look at it any different than I was before the first game," Vokoun said soon after stopping 29 of 31 shots in a Game 5 victory against the Ottawa Senators that wrapped up an Eastern Conference Semifinal series victory for the Penguins on Friday night.
"I always feel like it's a tryout, and once you stumble, you never know what's going to happen. It doesn't matter. I'm part of the team and we're here to win, so whoever's in the net and whatever's going on, as long as we're winning, that's the most important thing. Obviously you feel pretty good about winning and helping the team win. But as far as the future, we'll see."
Vokoun has started the past seven games for Pittsburgh, winning six. The one he lost arguably was his finest performance of the seven -- Vokoun made 46 saves in a 2-1 double-overtime loss to Ottawa in Game 3.
Bylsma turned to Vokoun after Fleury allowed 14 goals over a three-game span against the New York Islanders in the conference quarterfinals. While many viewed the move as a short-term fix, Vokoun has given Bylsma no choice but to stick with him.
If the Penguins' coaching staff intended to go back to Fleury as soon as the opportunity arose, Vokoun simply hasn't given them a chance.
"For me, there's nothing set in stone here -- I play every game like it could be my last," Vokoun said. "It wouldn't be any different for me if I was told, 'No matter what's going to happen, you're going to play the rest of the playoffs.'
"In this business, promises, they can only last as long as you're performing. So nothing really changes in that department; it's just nice to be able to play -- especially in the playoffs, where the tempo is higher and where you get to play back-to-back games and get the feel for how the game goes."
Vokoun hit the ground running in the postseason, making 31 saves in shutting out the Islanders in his Pittsburgh postseason debut May 9, and he hasn't looked back. After Fleury allowed at least four goals in three consecutive games, Vokoun hasn't permitted that many past him in any of his seven starts.
Vokoun has stopped at least 90 percent of the shots he's faced in all but one of his outings, making at least 29 saves in six of the seven.
Vokoun freely acknowledges he's been the beneficiary of not only the NHL's deepest, most talented offense, but a much-improved defense in front of him that Fleury did not enjoy during stretches against the Islanders. But Vokoun has generally avoided the occasional "soft" goal that plagued Fleury and the Penguins over these two most recent postseasons. And he also has come up with big saves at key moments.
The most recent example of the latter was denying Ottawa's Colin Greening from in close in a transition play during the final minute of the second period of Game 5. The Senators had scored less than three minutes prior to climb back into the game, and a Greening goal would have made it 3-2.
Instead, Vokoun shut the door, setting the stage for an Evgeni Malkin goal at the other end 18 seconds later to, in effect, put the game out of reach.
"I don't think he's had to make too many spectacular saves, but he was tested there on that 2-on-1 and came up big," Bylsma said. "He's been strong on some of the shots and those through traffic on the PK."
An unquestioned starter for a decade, Vokoun had opportunities to remain a No. 1 goalie when he was a free agent after last season. But with only two playoff series under his belt and the clock ticking on his career, Vokoun elected to sign with a team in Pittsburgh that had an established, proven starter in Fleury -- but that was also on the short list of favorites to claim the Stanley Cup.
Months later at the NHL Trade Deadline, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla made similar decisions, waiving no-trade clauses to join a team for which they would play lesser roles as 30-somethings to chase an elusive Stanley Cup.
No team Vokoun had played on over his first 13 NHL seasons had advanced past the first round.
"I came here for the chance to be able to go deep in the playoffs -- and I'm not the only one; a couple other guys like that are here," Vokoun said. "And obviously from my own experience, I know how hard it is to get where we are right now, so you appreciate it and you enjoy it and you leave everything out there and make sure when it's all said and done, at least I did everything."
Since winning the Cup in 2009, Fleury has struggled in the postseason. Vokoun was signed, in part, to lighten the regular-season load on Fleury so that fatigue was not a factor in the playoffs. But what Shero left unspoken was the possibility Vokoun would serve as insurance in case Fleury did not perform well in the playoffs -- as was the case last season, when the Philadelphia Flyers peppered him for 26 goals in six games.
Vokoun and Fleury quickly established a good relationship, and Vokoun has expressed how he wishes his opportunity had come under different circumstances.
But he also understands the business. Promises can only last as long as you're performing, remember?
Vokoun has seized his chance to play. He knows he's blessed to be backstopping a team that is averaging 4.27 goals per game, the most of any team to play at least seven games in any postseason since Vokoun entered the League.
Ideal circumstances for a middle-age "tryout" -- one that has no end in sight.
"It's been a lot of fun," Vokoun said Friday. "We played great as a team in this series with a lot of unselfish plays. Players are playing for their team and playing good defense, and it showed.