He has not worn a Predators uniform since April 27, 2007; yet I still root for Tomas Vokoun. With all the obstacles he has overcome in his career, how could I not? Now, I have the feeling that Pittsburgh Penguins fans feel much the same way.
As this playoff season got started, there was absolutely no indication that we would be talking about Tomas at all. Marc-Andre Fleury shut the New York Islanders out in the first game of the opening series, stopping 19 shots. The second game marked the return of Sidney Crosby, who celebrated with a two-goal night. Still, the Islanders overcame a 3-1 deficit to win, 4-3, proving that the series was not going to be an easy one for the Penguins.
Game Three on Long Island, the Penguins overcame an early two-goal deficit and won in overtime on a powerplay goal by Chris Kunitz. It was the following game where it all came unraveled for Fleury, the goaltender of record when the Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup.
Fleury was clearly fighting the puck, and the puck oftentimes won. The Islanders tied the series, with 6 goals on only 24 shots. At this point, since his shutout in the opener, Fleury had stopped 88 of 112 shots, or–78.6 per cent. For the record, 13 goaltenders in the playoffs have stopped over 91 per cent of the shots they faced.
That led to a crucial decision by Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma. It was clear that Fleury wasn’t getting the job done. So Bylsma, with his top-seeded team in the East even with the eighth-seeded Islanders after four games, decided to put Tomas Vokoun between the pipes. Vokoun, 36, who had not been in a playoff game since his last with the Predators six years ago, would get the call.
Bylsma’s move has clearly paid off. Vokoun’s play has been stellar. He won games five and six to close out the Islanders in the first round, then lost just once (in double overtime) in five games to the Ottawa Senators in Round Two. Heading into the Eastern Conference Final with the Boston Bruins, Vokoun is 6-1, with a 1.85 goals against average and a 94.1 saves percentage.
The above is the reason Penguin fans love him. Now I will tell you why he rates so highly with me:
Many deals were made as the Predators’ first roster was formed at the 1998 expansion draft. The Montreal Canadiens, who had drafted Vokoun out of the Czech Republic in 1994, begged the Predators to select him, perhaps to ensure they wouldn’t lose a goaltender in later expansion drafts. To emphasize their desires, they also gave the Predators center Sebastien Bordeleau.
Coming into that first Predators’ training camp, the pecking order in goal for the team appeared to be Mike Dunham, Mikhail Shtalenkov, Dominic Roussel and then Vokoun, who had played all of one NHL period for the Canadiens (where he gave up four goals in Philadelphia). Shtalenkov was traded before the season began to Edmonton in a deal that brought Mike Dunham’s first back-up to town: Eric Fichaud. Four days after that trade, Roussel was sent to Anaheim for Marc Moro and Chris Mason.
Vokoun started the Predators’ first season with the Milwaukee Admirals, playing nine games there. He made his Predators’ debut in early November, taking a 5-3 loss in Vancouver. A week later, he held the St. Louis Blues scoreless in the third period, mopping up for Mike Dunham. Eric Fichaud picked up the next four appearances as Dunham was sidelined by injury.
During this time, Tomas would end up in a seat behind me on the team bus. The top goaltender of that era was Buffalo’s Dominik Hasek (also from the Czech Republic). Vokoun knew I had been with him in Buffalo and would ask me about Hasek on a fairly regular basis
On December 10th, Vokoun picked up his first NHL win, 2-1 over San Jose, stopping 34 of 35 shots. He started the next game as well – against the team that wanted to be rid of him – Montreal, and stopped 25 of 27 in a tie at 2. On December 19th, Dunham injured his groin on a penalty shot by Markus Naslund in Vancouver. Dunham would not return for another month. The Predators then used Vokoun, Fichaud and Chris Mason trying to hold things together. They combined to go 5-8-1 (as an expansion team!) in Dunham’s absence.
In his 15th start for the team, one night after a dropping a 2-1 decision to the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings in Detroit, Vokoun made Predators’ history. He produced the team’s first shutout, stopping 31 shots in a win over the Phoenix Coyotes. He raised his hands high over his head and was jumped to the side of his net in celebration.
However, Vokoun’s career course was not yet set. He would back up Mike Dunham and have another stint or two in Milwaukee until the big trade of December 12, 2002, when the team decided to go with him as the starter, and send Dunham to the New York Rangers.
At that point, things began to turn for the Predators. Still offensively challenged, they did not make the playoffs in 2003. But they did make them the next four seasons, and Vokoun was the man in net for each of those teams. He is the ultimate team man. He takes responsibility for every goal scored against him, he doesn’t point fingers at his teammates. That sort of behavior helps to hold a team together, particularly through the inevitable tough times that develop.
He has maintained his humility throughout his 15-season career, perhaps the best example of this – the day after one of his typical 40-save performances, he was seen at a craft show in Nashville pushing a stroller with his wife Dagmar and their first daughter, Adelle (now a competitive figure skater). When he was recognized that afternoon, his head bowed, but with a big smile on his face, he said “You did NOT see me here!”
Now Vokoun is being seen all across the hockey world, and he has a chance to play a vital role for a top Stanley Cup contender. I am willing to wager there are a lot of people that couldn’t be happier for him. Who knows just how many points he stole for the Predators over the years? That notwithstanding, there is an outstanding chance that when his career is over, he will look back and the 2013 playoffs and say: “those were the good old days!”
Click on the links below to hear some of my favorite Vokoun calls:
Vokoun records his first career shut out - Jan. 15, 1999
Vokoun shutsouts Detroit - Dec. 20, 2003
Vokoun stymies Pavel Bure