By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH — Tomas Vokoun might just be what the Pittsburgh Penguins needed to settle a struggling defense and dispatch the pesky New York Islanders.
Vokoun, inserted into the lineup because of inconsistent play from embattled starter Marc-Andre Fleury, stopped 31 shots for his second career postseason shutout while Tyler Kennedy and Sidney Crosby scored key goals, helping to propel the Pittsburgh Penguins past the New York Islanders, 4-0, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Thursday at Consol Energy Center.
Pittsburgh, with a 3-2 lead, looks to close out the best-of-seven series during Game 6 on Saturday (7 p.m.) on Long Island, a place where the Penguins allowed 10 goals their last two games.
“This was an extremely big game,” Penguins’ head coach Dan Bylsma said. “We got the win, now we have to be focused on playing our best game on Long Island.
“We have to be ready for that environment and be ready for their absolute best to close this thing out.”
Vokoun got the start in net, a move necessitated by three straight streaky performances by Fleury, who has allowed 40 goals in his last 10 playoff games, including 14 in the last three games.
Bylsma insists he still believes in the Stanley Cup-winning Fleury, but the move to the veteran Vokoun was made in the hopes to spark his sluggish team and shift momentum in the seven-game series, and it may have just worked.
Bylsma didn’t say if Vokoun would start Saturday, but hinted the Islanders may see the 36-year-old between the pipes again.
“I’m going to revert to not telling you about my lineup, but he played a pretty good game,” Bylsma said.
Vokoun doesn’t care who gets the start on Saturday as long as the Penguins advance.
“I’m here to help the team,” Vokoun said. “Whatever the coaches decide is fine by me. I don’t care if I play one minute or every minute. I only care about the outcome at the end.”
Pittsburgh also got a boost with the addition of Kennedy and Joe Vitale up front and Simon Despres along the blueline, inserted in favor of Jussi Jokinen, forward Tanner Glass and defenseman Mark Eaton, who were all scratched.
Bylsma also shifted Crosby with key trade-deadline acquisition Jarome Iginla and Pascal Dupuis while reuniting Evgeni Malkin with Chris Kunitz and James Neal.
“Getting Jarome on the right side and Chris Kunitz on a line with Malkin and Neal immediately showed a spark for us,” Bylsma said.
Kennedy broke a scoreless tie at 12:35 of the second period and defenseman Douglas Murray scored his second of the playoffs 1:22 later, his harmless-looking shot from the point bouncing off the glove of Islanders’ goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, over his body and into the net.
Crosby scored perhaps the biggest goal, and certainly the most spectacular, coming seconds after Vokoun stopped Islanders’ sniper John Tavares on a dazzling series of dekes intended to cut the Pens’ lead in half.
Crosby, after taking a pass from Iginla, found another gear and, with an explosion of speed, split Islanders’ defensemen Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey, setting up his second of the playoffs past a helpless Nabokov to give the Penguins a 3-0 lead.
“It was a pretty amazing goal,” Bylsma said. “Not only did he display the speed, but the move, going under the stick, breaking in and coming out the other side for a big goal.”
It was also eerily similar to a goal scored by Mario Lemieux in 1988, one that is forever immortalized as a bronze statue outside Consol Energy Center as the Penguins’ Hall of Fame co-owner split a pair of Islanders’ defenders during his playing career.
“His was much nicer than mine,” Crosby said. “He went through guys and stickhandled through them and stickhandled around the goalie too.
“I had a few less moves and a pretty basic shot, but I’ll take the goal anytime it goes in.”
Defenseman Kris Letang scored six seconds into a third-period power play, chasing Nabokov, who stopped 23 of 27 shots, but the goal was just a formality as Vokoun cruised to shutout.
“He made saves in key moments and was really calm in net, so it gave us confidence,” Letang said.
It was a confidence boost the top-seeded Penguins sorely needed.
The pesky No. 8-seeded Islanders tied the series at 2 following a wild, momentum-swinging 6-4 victory Tuesday where Fleury allowed four of the game’s final five goals, including a pair of soft ones that saw New York beat the Penguins’ goaltender while he was out of position.
Fleury was pulled from the playoffs for the first time in his career, giving way for Vokoun, a 15-year-veteran who made his first postseason start since April 20, 2007, when he played for the Nashville Predators.
“I was a little bit nervous the whole day to be honest,” Vokoun said. “You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t. I hadn’t played in a long time so it’s hard to remember what to expect.”
The past memories weren’t good ones.
Vokoun, 3-8 lifetime and 1-6 in his last seven post-eason starts entering Thursday, hasn’t had much luck in the playoffs, but he’s been spectacular against the Islanders this season.
The win improved Vokoun’s record against the Islanders to a perfect 4-0 this year with a microscopic goals-against average of 0.69 coupled with a .977 save percentage.
“He had a number of good stops,” Bylsma said. “They had some good opportunities to score and he was very good.”
Vokoun, 13-4 this season with a 2.45 goals-against average, was acquired during an offseason trade with Washington for such an occasion.
The Pens imploded defensively during their first-round playoff series last season against the Philadelphia Flyers and this seven-game set looked to be heading in the same direction.
The Penguins, after rolling to a 5-0 win in Game 1, were careless with the puck and the underdog Islanders converted Pittsburgh’s sloppy defensive mistakes into goals, turning what looked to be a mismatch on paper to an upset in the making.
Not so fast. Vokoun has provided a calming influence to the Penguins’ defense and is now one win from advancing past the opening round of the playoffs for the first time in his 15-year career.
Vokoun stopped all 14 first-period shots he saw, including Kyle Okposo’s sharp backhand try on the power play after he split the Penguins’ defense, in addition to a pair of quality Colin McDonald and Michael Grabner chances.
Kennedy’s goal, set up by Letang’s picture-perfect two-line pass from deep in his own zone, and Crosby’s scintillating score proved to be moments of celebration for a star-studded team that finally looks like the one that cruised through the regular season to the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
One more performance like Thursday’s, and the Penguins will advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals for a date with the Ottawa Senators. The Penguins know it won’t be easy to close out the Islanders, though.
“You have to perform and execute, and we did that tonight,” Crosby said. “It doesn’t guarantee next game it’s going to happen. We have to go out with the same mentality and find a way to win.”
NOTES: Pittsburgh shut out the Islanders for the second time in the series, the first time the Penguins blanked an opponent twice in one seven-game set…Vokoun’s last playoff shutout came in 2004. He is the eighth goalie in team history to record a playoff shutout and joins Ron Tugnutt as the only netmeinders in team history to pick up a shutout in their first playoff game with Pittsburgh…Vokoun faced Nabokov, then a member of the San Jose Sharks in his last playoff start…Johan Hedberg was the last goaltender other than Fleury to start a Penguins’ playoff game, May 22, 2001 at New Jersey…The Penguins’ last goaltender change in the playoffs not because of injury came when Tom Barrasso replaced Ken Wregget Game 2 against Florida in 1996.