PITTSBURGH — The NHL’s most unlikely postseason success story is nearly bald, his hairline an unwitting casualty to three decades spent hidden under a goaltender’s mask.
All those long winters — including 16 in the best league in the world — never led to long springs, however, for Tomas Vokoun.
Halfway through the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs the two-time All-Star turned journeyman backup holds the key to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ playoff hopes. He is, for the first time in his life, the “hot goalie” during the most important time of year.
Heading into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Bruins tonight, Vokoun’s numbers appear to be a misprint. Seven starts. Six wins. One very stoic and largely anonymous presence at the back of Pittsburgh’s star-laden attack.
Given a week to ponder his remarkable run after taking over for struggling Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the first-round series against the New York Islanders, Vokoun insists he’s trying not to think about what it all means, with varying levels of success.
“You just know that you’re playing well, you’re trying to do the right things,” Vokoun said. “You try not to treat it any differently, even if you know the stakes are just getting bigger.”
It’s a phenomenon unique to goaltenders this time of year. For all the talk about the importance of playoff experience, the guys in the back of the net can sometimes seem immune to the pressure.
Vokoun never played on a team that made it past the opening round of the postseason until Pittsburgh ousted the Islanders in six games three weeks ago. He was hardly overcome by the stage in the second round against Ottawa, allowing all of 11 goals in five games, including a pair of of meaningless scores after the Penguins already had things well in hand during Game 4 and 5 routs.
NHL history is littered with callow goalies who have ended up lifting the Cup.
Martin Brodeur was 22. Patrick Roy was 20. Ken Dryden was 23. Jonathan Quick was 4-8 in the playoffs before going 16-4 and leading the Los Angeles Kings to the championship at 26.
Vokoun is at the opposite end of his career but enjoying the same kind of coming-out party. It’s uncharted territory for a player acquired for a mere seventh-round pick last summer as an insurance plan should Fleury falter.
“He has been one of the better goalies in NHL,” Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero said. “He just happened to be playing in Nashville and Florida, not in the media spotlight.”
One that’s certainly going to ratchet up over the next two weeks. It can get unnerving. For proof, he need only look 180 feet down the ice tonight at Boston’s Tuukka Rask.
The Bruins were on the cusp of a berth in the conference finals in 2010 with a 22-year-old Rask leading the way. Boston took a 3-0 lead over Philadelphia in the second round when the season suddenly imploded. A 5-4 overtime loss in Game 4 morphed into three more defeats, including a 4-3 collapse in Game 7 when Rask squandered a three-goal, first-period lead.
Though he played 29 games the following season, he didn’t see a second of ice time in the playoffs as Tim Thomas carried the Bruins to their first title in nearly four decades.
“It’s different if you’re playing or if you’re not,” he said. “You had something to do with it on the ice.”
Rask’s role (and his view) will be much more involved this time around. And Boston coach Claude Julien thinks Rask may have turned a corner of sorts in the second round against the New York Rangers. Boston bolted to a 3-0 lead once again and went up 2-0 early in Game 4. The Rangers recovered — thanks in part to a curious goal in which Rask appeared to screw himself into the ice — to win in overtime.
Rask bounced back in Game 5, turning aside 28 of 29 shots as the Bruins moved on and perhaps obliterated any lingering doubts about their goaltender’s resilience.
“That Game 4 could’ve been a lot more devastating than it was,” coach Claude Julien said. “How he rebounded in Game 5 shows me that there’s no issues there.”
Of course, the high-flying Penguins have a way of creating issues. Pittsburgh peppering Evgeni Nabokhov and Craig Anderson into early exits a combined four times during the first two rounds while averaging 4.27 goals per game, the highest scoring average at this point in the playoffs in 20 years.
A highly efficient power play and a remarkably skilled roster led by former MVPs Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin helps. Still, for all its considerable firepower, Pittsburgh is not invulnerable. The Penguins were similarly loaded three years ago when they ran into Montreal’s unheralded Jaroslav Halak in the second round. The then-24-year-old became impenetrable as the series wore on and the Canadiens won in seven games.
The memory of that stunning failure remains fresh and the Penguins are well aware Rask and Boston’s smothering defense could provide an even more impenetrable shell.
“We have to make (Rask) uncomfortable,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said.
In the end, whichever goaltender finds his comfort zone is the one that will extend his team’s season into the first days of summer. It’s a ride Vokoun is intent on enjoying, one the oldest player on the Stanley Cup favorite thought may never come.
“This is what you play for,” he said. “It’s taken a long time to get here. Yeah there’s pressure but really it’s just about doing your job.
“That’s all I can do.”
So far, so good.