Tomas Vokoun is in his 15th NHL season, but this is new to him.
Even though the Penguins goaltender has been in the NHL for 16 years – since 1997 – he has never before been one series win away from the Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s nice to play in the playoffs,” Vokoun said. “I haven’t had the chance for a long time.”
Make that a very long time, and never past the first round. His postseason debut at age 27 went spectacularly for him, as he posted a 2.02 goals against average and playoff-best .939 save percentage. But his Nashville Predators lost to the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings in six games. He had another chance in 2007 and maintained a steady 2.96 GAA and .902 save percentage, but the Predators were ousted again in five games.
Vokoun had to wait six years before he could be in goal for playoff hockey again. He started four years for the Florida Panthers without a winning season, then watched from the Capitals bench last season as young Braden Holtby’s strong play could not save Washington from second-round elimination.
The Penguins acquired Vokoun from the Capitals last summer to play with Marc-Andre Fleury and he was always prepared to skate in if needed.
"You just don't know when injury or whatever else can happen. You could be playing for a while. You’ve got to be ready,” Vokoun said. “As a backup goalie, your job is to be ready when the team needs you.”
Since Vokoun entered the Penguins’ goal for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Islanders, he has performed spectacularly. He did not allow more than three goals in any of his starts the first two rounds.
Most importantly, the Penguins won two straight games to finish off the Islanders with Vokoun as the starter, and they brushed away the Ottawa Senators in five games to reach the Eastern Conference Final. Advancing in the playoffs is an achievement for Vokoun, but he is not done yet.
“Our ultimate goal is winning, so any assessments about the season before it’s over, they’d be too early,” Vokoun said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Multiple Penguins players talk about Vokoun as a “calming influence” in communicating with defensemen, handling the puck and maintaining a steady demeanor.
“He never gets too rattled, never gets too excited. He’s pretty even-keeled,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “Being a veteran, I think a lot of guys look to him to see how he carries himself … Even in the games, when things aren’t going his way, he moves on pretty quick. It doesn’t carry over to the next game.”
The team’s confidence in Vokoun stems from the job he did playing in nearly half the Penguins’ regular season games, posting a 13-4 record with three shutouts, a 2.45 GAA and .919 save percentage. His play carried over into his first postseason game when Vokoun stepped in with a 31-save shutout of New York in Game 5.
“He came in and stabilized us, gave us a chance to win that series,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “He has been solid since.”
In the conference finals for the first time, Vokoun looks to grab a spot in the Stanley Cup Final and earn a ring to join his only two championships: gold medals in the 2005 and ‘10 World Championships.
Only the Boston Bruins stand in his way.
“They’re a team who puts a lot of pucks on net and trying to crash the net and make it tough on goalies,” Vokoun said. “Obviously they have a few guys on the back end with big shots, too. We know pretty much what challenges that brings.
“It’s going to be a tough series. I’m not expecting anything less.”