Cross Checks: Tomas Vokoun



BOSTON -- There is nowhere quite like the dressing room of a team that has gone down 3-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series.

There is especially nothing like the dressing room of a team that has lost an epic double-overtime battle like the one the Pittsburgh Penguins lost by a 2-1 count in the early-morning hours of Thursday to fall behind the Boston Bruins 3-0 in their Eastern Conference finals.

A dressing room like this is a gloomy place, balanced somewhere between the dead and living.

With any realistic chance of getting back in this series hanging in the balance, the Penguins rebounded after two home losses, the last a 6-1 shellacking in Game 2, to produce a dramatically different effort in Game 3.

Even when they gave up a goal on the first shot of the game when David Krejci’s shot caromed off Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen’s stick and past netminder Tomas Vokoun, the Penguins did as they promised.

They stayed patient.

They forechecked with a purpose.

They created chances from a strong defensive position.

And as time went on and the Bruins could not crack the Penguins as they had in the first two games, something special began to unfold.

Starting in the second period, the kind of series most had imagined when these two deep, experience, talented teams faced off in Game 1 emerged.

It’s easy to toss out terms such as "classic" or "titanic," but as this game moved through Wednesday evening and into Thursday, it was hard not to think of it anything but those terms.

It was part the relentless to-and-fro nature of the action and part what was at stake, the reality of what the outcome meant to both teams.

The Bruins did not nurse the lead but forced Vokoun, named the starter after being yanked after allowing three first-period goals in Game 2, into making key saves to keep his team in the game.

But the Penguins began to carry the balance of the play. They earned three second-period power plays and finally tied it midway through the period on an even-strength Chris Kunitz goal.

That it came off a face-off, another element the Penguins had been miserable at in the first two games, was further illustration that the Penguins had brought something different to the table.

Back and forth this game went, each missed chance for the Penguins a missed chance at a new lease on their playoff lives.

Each missed Bruin chance was a missed chance at pushing the Penguins to the edge of the abyss.

Each post rattled was a mournful lament at what might have been.

Crosby hit one on a blind backhand as Tuukka Rask scrambled across the crease in the third.

Nathan Horton hit one in the first overtime.

The Penguins were given a power play in the first overtime when Chris Kelly was whistled for tripping and then the Bruins got a chance when Brooks Orpik high-sticked Brad Marchand.

Late in the first overtime, Evgeni Malkin flipped the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game penalty and still the Bruins could not finish it. Early in the second overtime, the Penguins got a second chance when the Bruins were called for too many men for the second time in the game.

In all, the teams combined to go a shocking 0-for-11 with the man advantage and each time those opportunities ticked away on the giant score clock hanging over center ice, it was greeted with equal parts sigh of relief from one side and rueful grimace on the other.

Rask would not yield, in the end stopping 53 of 54 shots.

Vokoun matched him virtually stop for stop, allowing just the first-shot deflection and then, in the end, the final shot of the night, the Bruins’ 40th.

It came with 4:41 left in the second overtime. After Deryk Engelland could not clear the puck through the neutral zone and Evgeni Malkin was knocked off the puck by a rejuvenated Jaromir Jagr, the Bruins’ resident hero Patrice Bergeron redirected a Marchand pass past Vokoun and abruptly, as all overtime games end, it was over.

It was Bergeron who tied Game 7 of the Bruins’ opening-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the final minute after the Bruins had been down 4-1 and then went on to score the overtime winner.

The Bruins have been so steady, so near perfect since then in going 7-1 in in beating the New York Rangers in five and now three straight against the Penguins, that it’s hard to recall they were that close to being one round and done.

Now they are one win from sweeping the Eastern Conference’s best regular-season team and a team built to succeed in the postseason.

"I think it's a little bit of everything," a weary Bergeron said after reinforcing his status as one of the game’s clutch players. "It's also mental. You've got to stay sharp and find a way, but I think it's all in your head. As long as you don't feel tired in your head, your legs are fine. But you're right, your body is cramping up and you've just got to find a way, just keep battling, because I think everyone is in the same situation."

Well, everyone was in the same position until that final moment, the denouement.

From the moment Bergeron’s shot found the corner of the net, it was as though a great chasm opened between the two teams that had battled in such close quarters throughout the evening.

In the Boston dressing room, relief and cautious talk about not looking too far ahead, taking nothing for granted.

"That’s a game that could go either way," Boston defenseman Andrew Ference said. "It’s overtime. Double overtime. There’s posts, there’s big saves. That’s the type of game you clash and you bang heads.

"Win or lose, you come out and you say, 'You know what? We gave it our hardest.' So, like I said, we’re obviously happy to come out on the right side of it but I don’t think anybody is kidding themselves. You know that it can go either way in a game like that."

But it didn’t go either way. It went their way. And, oh, isn’t that a world away from what might have been for the Penguins?

In that room, hushed and humid, the familiar predictable words of hope and defiance were emitted but history and, perhaps more important, reality serves to crush the words like dry leaves the moment they are spoken.

"It was obviously a large improvement from the first two games," Orpik said.

Then he paused, and you wondered if it was from the tremendous hit he took from Milan Lucic that left him stunned during the second overtime or just the reality of the situation.

"We’re here for results, so there’s no real moral victories at this point in the season," Orpik said.

Crosby echoed those sentiments, saying this game looked so much better because the Penguins were so much better than in Game 2. But that, in the end, meant nothing.

"Did a lot better job tonight but that doesn’t guarantee anything," Crosby said. "So, we do a lot of these same things and I think we all trust and believe we can get this back to Pittsburgh."

Crosby was one of many Penguins who had a terrific bounce-back effort in Game 3 after two miserable outings in Pittsburgh. He went 21-17 on draws and won the one that led to the Pens’ only goal.

Evgeni Malkin was a beast and led all players with 10 shots.

James Neal had seven shots and was a different player. His pass to Craig Adams in the second overtime nearly sent the game and the series onto a different path.

But it didn’t.

They could not, with all their star power and determination, find that second goal that would have changed everything.

"It’s obviously frustrating but at the same time it’s a positive, too," Neal offered, still sitting in his stall with most of his gear on. "We did a lot of good things and stuck with it throughout the whole game.

"We think we deserved a little better tonight but that’s what playoffs are. One bounce can go either way. They got that there. So, obviously, tough to come back from three (games down), you know. We’re going to start with one period and one game because there’s no give-up in this room."


BOSTON -- From Dan Bylsma on down through starting netminder Tomas Vokoun to Jarome Iginla, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Wednesday night looms as a seminal moment for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It might seem a bit hyperbolic to suggest that for a team that is trailing by two games in the Eastern Conference finals, but this is as big as it gets. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to suggest this is as big a game as the Penguins franchise has faced since Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals in Detroit.

Answer the bell after being outscored 9-1 at home in the first two games, including a 6-1 shellacking in Game 2, and this series takes on a different tenor. In short, win and there will be life.

Lose and it’s all but over and the questions about dramatic changes within the organization will begin in earnest.

It’s hard to imagine a game for which there has been this much anticipation this spring, and that takes into account dramatic Game 7s between Boston and Toronto, Detroit and Chicago, and San Jose and Los Angeles. That’s because of the manner in which the Bruins have manhandled the Penguins juxtaposed against the star quality and attendant expectations that surround the Pittsburgh franchise heading into this postseason and specifically this series.

This game will be a litmus test for the Penguins’ character, pure and simple.

“You don’t plan on being in this situation, but you definitely see what you’re made of in these type of scenarios, these type of situations,” said Crosby, the Penguins’ captain who is coming off two subpar games.

“We’ve proven all year long when we’ve had adversity and we’ve responded the right way, so I think we believe and trust that tonight will be the same and we’ll find a way to make sure we’re back on track here,” he added.

Bylsma agreed that Game 3 will speak volumes about what this team is about.

"We haven't really been happy with the way we've played and know we've gotten off our game and deviated from it,” he said. "We know the situation we're in exactly too. We're down 0-2, and we're challenged with going on the road to Boston for two. We're going to find out exactly an awful lot about our mindset, our team coming out here tonight in this game."

At the heart of the matter is the fact that this team was built for these moments.

Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray were brought in at the trade deadline to help guide an already deep and experienced team through turbulent times.

Crosby, Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang all were part of the Penguins’ dramatic run to the Cup in 2009, a run that included comeback wins in seven-game series against Washington and Detroit.

In short, a team that was built for the long haul now has to play like it.

“The playoffs, that’s what it’s all about, I think," said Dupuis. "Every single game, when you’re back's to the wall a little bit when you’re down 2-0 in the series, you need to react, you need to bring your A-game. Pretty confident we will tonight."

Although it’s possible there will be other lineup changes -- Bylsma promised that the team would have a different look in Game 3 in terms of lineup and line combinations -- the biggest decision heading into Game 3 is returning Vokoun to the starting role.

Vokoun has started every game since the fifth game of the first round but was pulled in the first period of Game 3 after allowing three goals on 12 shots. Marc-Andre Fleury came on but did not look sharp. While there was much speculation about which way Bylsma would go with his goaltending in an effort to avoid going down 3-0 in the series, he decided on the calmness of the veteran Vokoun.

“Looking for a solid game from our goaltender,” Bylsma said. "We've gotten that from Tomas in virtually every game he's played, a real solid performance, and he's done that for us, and that's what we need tonight. We don't need perfection. We're looking for a solid game in between the pipes and from our goaltender to allow our team to win the hockey game."

It’s the kind of decision that looms large for all concerned. Not only in the short term for Vokoun and the Penguins and their ability to turn this into a series but also over the long term as the lack of confidence in Fleury suggests that, if we haven’t seen the last of him in a Penguins jersey, the clock is definitely ticking toward the end of his run in Pittsburgh.

“It would be really tough for Marc, coming in after such a long time, so obviously coach's decision," Vokoun said Wednesday morning. "Just trying to repay their confidence, have a good game, help the team win."

“It's pressure no matter what. I don't feel any added pressure, honestly. It's an important game, but so is every game in the series,” he added.

As for the ability to put away the previous game’s disappointment, Vokoun said experience has taught him to forget the past, whether it’s been good or bad.

“Over the years, you have to do it many time, so that helps, definitely. It's part of what we do as goalies,” he said. "You can't dwell on what happened last game. You just move on. It wouldn't matter if I got a shutout last game. It wouldn't make it any easier tonight."

Tough to fight Pens' power play

May, 17, 2013
5/17/13
1:50
PM ET
Eastern Conference Semifinals
7 Senators at 1 Penguins, 7:30 ET (Penguins lead series, 1-0)

* Penguins: 3-1 at home this postseason (outscoring opponents, 16-5)
* Penguins: 9-25 (36.0 pct) on power play this postseason (leads all playoff teams)
* Tomas Vokoun (PIT): 3-0, 1.28 GAA, .962 save pct (4 GA on 105 SA in 187:25 played), 1 SO since taking over as starting goaltender
* Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla & Pascal Dupuis (PIT): each has at least 1 point in all 7 playoff games for Penguins so far
* Senators: have not scored more than 2 goals in a game vs Penguins this season (4 total games incl. playoffs)
* Craig Anderson (OTT): 0-3-1, 2.96 GAA, .898 save pct (12 GA on 118 SA in 243:36 played) in 4 games vs Penguins this season (regular season & playoffs)
* Colin Greening (OTT): only Senators player with more than 1 goal vs Penguins this season (1 goal in regular season & scored goal in Game 1 of this series)

Helping Hand: The Penguins look to take a 2-0 series lead on Ottawa tonight. Evgeni Malkin has an assist in all seven games this postseason. From Elias: The only players in NHL history to record at least one assist in each of his team’s first eight games of a postseason are Fleming Mackell (1957–58 Bruins - 8 games), Bobby Orr (1971–72 Bruins - 11 games) and Joe Sakic (1996–97 Avalanche - 8 games).


PITTSBURGH -- If the Pittsburgh Penguins learned anything from their wobbly first-round victory over the New York Islanders, it’s this: hair-on-fire hockey, bad; patient, lethal hockey, good.

In a 4-1 Game 1 win over the Ottawa Senators that was much closer than the score would suggest, the Penguins more closely resembled the methodical, opportunistic group that dominated the Eastern Conference during the regular season, as opposed to the one that had the bejeebers scared out of it by the New York Islanders in the first round.

"That was the way that we want to play. I think the last series we had that first big game, and you think it’s going to be that way, and we had a tougher series than I’m sure that we thought," said defenseman Paul Martin, who opened the scoring for Pittsburgh before the game was three minutes old with one of two power-play goals scored by the Pens.

"I think it was good for us to realize how much better we’ve got to play to win games and tonight we did a lot of the little things that we do to help us win. Get on the forecheck, get pucks to the net and not spend as much time in our own end. So, it was big for us," Martin said.

This isn’t to suggest the Penguins dominated this game. They didn’t. Not by a long stretch.

In fact, one of the interesting things about this series -- the fourth time the teams have met in the postseason since the 2007 playoffs -- is that the Senators resemble a slightly less developed, less refined version of the Penguins themselves.

The Senators move the puck quickly and smartly out of their zone and are patient with the puck in the offensive zone. If they lack the finish of the Penguins, it is a function of a lack of raw skill and experience as opposed to will or understanding.

In Game 1, the Senators imposed their will on the Penguins for long stretches only to be denied by Tomas Vokoun, who won his third straight game since coming on to replace Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the first round. Vokoun stopped 35 of 36 shots and has now stopped 101 of the 105 shots he has faced this postseason.

The Penguins, meanwhile, withstood these moments of pressure from the Senators without melting down in their own zone, something that happened with frequency in the first round.

"I think we were all kind of trying to make sure we found a way to do a better job of getting out of our end and executing a little better," said captain Sidney Crosby, who was held without a point for the first time this postseason. "I think everyone was trying to make sure that they [bore] down a little bit more."

The differences, then, separating these two teams in this series-opening game were subtle, the kinds of differences that almost always separate the teams that can take a first-round series victory and build on it, and those that cannot.

The Penguins’ ruthlessly efficient power play was at it again, collecting two goals on four opportunities. The Pens lead the NHL in playoff power-play scoring and efficiency with nine goals on 25 opportunities.

The Senators, who were surprisingly potent with the man advantage in the first round against Montreal, scoring six times on 25 opportunities, could not match that Tuesday against the Penguins, going 0-for-5 with the man advantage, and in fact gave up a short-handed goal in the third period to scoring machine Pascal Dupuis to put the game out of reach.

The special-teams play was the difference, Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said.

"I thought we did a pretty good job five-on-five, but overall but I don’t think we can be happy with today’s game. We have to be a lot faster in our decision-making for us to be a faster team and we weren’t that tonight," Alfredsson said.

Head coach Paul MacLean acknowledged that perhaps the Sens’ youthfulness might have been a factor early in the game when Pittsburgh jumped out to the early lead. But they tied it quickly and MacLean felt the team reacted well, with the exception of producing goals.

"I don’t disagree that the youth of our team was a factor early in the game, but I thought we responded quite quickly after the first goal," MacLean said. "At the end of the day, I think they were a little bit quicker than us in the first period and it made a difference. But in the second period, I thought we came out and played a much better game to our liking and didn’t get enough out of it."

The first game of a new series is always about establishing a line in the sand.

That line becomes the baseline for future games, the mark against which a team continues to push forward and evolve -- or fall back and get pushed to the curb.

The Senators, in spite of the score, seem to feel that they are capable of drawing the next line, in effect redrawing the configuration of the series.

"We got a lot of pucks to the net. There was a lot of traffic and there was definitely some pucks laying around," said Ottawa netminder Craig Anderson, who has been dominant this spring for the Senators but who allowed four goals -- the most he’s given up in the postseason -- on 30 shots.

"They were pretty tough in front of the net and it really kept us from getting second and third chances, so going forward we have to be tougher in front of our own net and we have to be tougher in front of their net and try and get those chances and make them count," he added.

With two days off before Game 2 Friday night, the Senators will have loads of time to work on those elements they feel were missing in Game 1. The problem might be that if the Penguins really have learned from the first round, this will become a mighty steep climb.

"I think we played the right way tonight," said Dupuis, whose short-handed marker gives him a league-best six goals thus far.

"It wasn’t one of those fluke games," he said. "Yes, [Vokoun] made some key saves, yes, they had chances but you know what? It felt right."

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- What a fitting end to the Islanders' 2013 season, that they left the ice with the Nassau Coliseum crowd on its feet -- even after a heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins in Game 6 -- saluting the team’s stellar effort in its first playoff appearance since 2007.

That should be the lasting image -- not Brooks Orpik’s game winner -- that each player conjures up when looking back on the team’s first-round series against the top-seeded Penguins.

[+] EnlargeNew York Islanders
AP Photo/Kathy WillensThe Islanders should be proud of all they accomplished against the No. 1 seed Penguins.
Making it to the postseason was not enough for the Islanders, who surprised some doubters and captivated the league’s attention with their plucky play, but it should be regarded as a monumental step forward for the organization.

The Islanders couldn’t match Pittsburgh’s depth or experience, but they had the grit, heart and desire in ample supply to push the Penguins in a six-game set.

For so many years, the Islanders have suffered the indignities of the down-trodden and the ridicule that comes with annual bottom-five finishes.

But that perception of the Islanders is bound to change after this.

"We’ve taken a lot of heat in the past three years since I’ve been here, a lot of criticism from the media, people looked at us as a laughingstock," said heart-and-soul grinder Matt Martin, who finished with a game-high 11 hits Saturday night. "Throughout this series, we showed we can play with anyone. We’re excited about the future. We think we have something special here."

The Penguins acknowledged that, too.

After wrapping up their fourth win of the series -- a game that required them to erase three separate one-goal Islanders leads before Orpik’s deciding goal 7:49 into overtime -- they had plenty of respect for the Islanders as they convened at center ice for the customary handshake line.

[+] EnlargeJohn Tavares, Sidney Crosby
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsJohn Tavares said this experience will just serve to motivate the Islanders next season.
"Just walking through the line, they said so many good things, just that you guys have a really good team here. You know, I don’t think this team has heard that in a long time," said rugged forward Colin McDonald, who gave the Isles a 2-1 lead with 37 seconds remaining in the first period. "That’s one of the few positives you can talk about right now. I think as an organization, as players, maybe we gained some respect back, and I’m really glad the fans supported us the way they do. I hope this is just the start, a stepping stone looking ahead to next year."

The Islanders received the requisite secondary scoring Saturday from the likes of McDonald and Michael Grabner to build off John Tavares’ wrist shot from the slot that gave the Isles a 1-0 lead 5:36 into play.

But the Pens showed resilience in a tough road test during which they were outshot 38-21 and superstar Sidney Crosby was held to one point. Each time the Isles gained momentum, the Penguins found a way to even the score. Less than six minutes from the Islanders forcing a winner-takes-all Game 7 in Pittsburgh, Pens defenseman Paul Martin unleashed a one-timer that deflected off Frans Nielsen to knot the score at 3 and send the game into overtime.

"I think we outshot them again today and created a lot of opportunities, but times that we could’ve gone up and taken a bigger lead, we just couldn’t do it," said Tavares, who on Friday was named one of three Hart Memorial Trophy finalists for the league’s annual MVP. "They stayed with it, and maybe that’s why they’re moving on."

"It was every bit of a battle in those six games," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after his team punched its ticket to a second-round matchup against the seventh-seeded Ottawa Senators.

Special teams hurt the Islanders and veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov failed to steal a game, but the Penguins were the team to come up with the big plays when it counted.

For that reason, the Islanders will pack up for the offseason, with the hunger to win even more intense now that they know what it takes and how it’s done.

"It’s what I’ll be thinking about all summer," said Tavares, who finished the series with three goals and five points. "It’s what pushes you every day, and you finally get to experience it. We got here and we weren’t satisfied with getting here. I thought we competed real well, we played with them most of the series and dictated the play a lot of the series, too. They just took advantage of most of their opportunities."

The Penguins remained composed throughout the series, keeping doubt at bay even when the Islanders' Cinderella story seemed to be gaining traction. Bylsma made a bold but necessary goaltending change in replacing starter Marc-Andre Fleury with veteran backup Tomas Vokoun after a bafflingly bad performance in Game 4. That move paid dividends as the latter turned away 66 of 69 shots faced in his two starts to close out the series.

And in moving on, Pittsburgh managed to exorcise some demons from last spring’s implosion when the team was upset in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers.

"I think we fought it a little bit, that history, and we fought it in different ways," Bylsma said. "But again, we had to be excited to win and not thinking about the past."

The Islanders don’t have that luxury, however. With their first taste of the playoffs also comes their first devastating sense of disappointment.

That won’t abate any time soon.

"Right now, it’s just tough, but in a couple of weeks when we look back at the season, I think we’ll realize we took a big step in the right direction," Nielsen said. "But, we’re definitely not satisfied with that. It’s still a long way to go. It’s not a success until we’ve got that Cup, but I think it’s a step in the right direction."

Pens shutouts deserve a shoutout

May, 9, 2013
5/09/13
10:14
PM ET
FROM ELIAS:

This is the first time in 34 years that 2 different goalies had a shutout in a single series for the same team:

Shutout by 2 Different Goalies in Same Series
Stanley Cup Playoff History
First Goalie 2nd Goalie
2013 Penguins Marc-Andre Fleury Tomas Vokoun
1979 Islanders Chico Resch Billy Smith
1976 Bruins Gerry Cheevers Gilles Gilbert
1975 Flyers Bernie Parent Wayne Stephenson
1972 Bruins Gerry Cheevers Eddie Johnston
1965 Canadiens Charlie Hodge Gump Worsley

Afternoon jam: Sens up against odds

May, 9, 2013
5/09/13
2:00
PM ET
7 Senators at 2 Canadiens, 7 ET (Senators lead series 3-1)
* Canadiens: Won 5 of last 6 home meetings with Senators including playoffs
* Senators: Looking to win 1st playoff series since reaching Stanley Cup finals in 2006-07 season
* Canadiens: Haven't lost in quarterfinals of consecutive postseason appearances since 1995-96 & 1996-97
* Senators: Outscored Canadiens 10-0 in 3rd period & OT this series (3-0 in Game 4)

8 Islanders at 1 Penguins, 7 ET (Series tied 2-2)
* Tomas Vokoun (PIT): Expected to start in goal over Marc-Andre Fleury; Fleury has allowed 14 goals in last 3 games
* Sidney Crosby (PIT): At least 1 point in all 3 games played this series (DNP Game 1)
* Penguins: Eastern Conference-high 18 home wins during reg. season (T-2nd most in NHL)
* Islanders: Outscored Penguins 6-1 in 3rd period this series (3-1 in Game 4)

8 Wild at 1 Blackhawks, 9:30 ET (Blackhawks lead series 3-1)
* Blackhawks: Won 5 of last 6 games vs Wild including playoffs
* Wild: Lost 6 of last 7 playoff games
* Patrick Sharp (CHI): 2 multi-goal games in series (had none in 28 regular season games)
* Blackhawks: Looking to win playoff series for 1st time since winning Stanley Cup in 2010
PITTSBURGH -- If there is a feeling of history surrounding the decision to bench Pittsburgh Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury for the first time in the playoffs, that sense of history cuts deeper than just the ending of a personal streak.

True, Fleury has started every Penguins playoff game since he came into the NHL, a stretch of 79 postseason games that includes the team's runs to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009.

But for veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun, there is also a sense of history in being the man who will start in Fleury's place in a pivotal fifth game against the New York Islanders on Thursday night.

Vokoun, 36, will step into the crease in a playoff game for the first time since 2007, and he conceded Thursday morning that he didn't think he'd ever have that experience again.

"For me, I'm going to enjoy it," he said. "I wasn't sure if I was ever going to get the chance to play again in the playoffs. It’s nice to have the chance. Like I said, you play hockey to be in these moments; you don't play hockey to go for morning skate and take shots and do that."

Does he expect to have some nerves?

Sure.

"Everybody is nervous," Vokoun said. "You wouldn't be human if we weren't. But I play long enough and I've been through a lot, so hopefully that'll help carry me through it."

The native of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic was signed by the Washington Capitals before the 2011-12 season in the hopes he would provide veteran guidance for a team looking to get over the playoff hump. He was injured, however, and missed the postseason.

He signed with the Penguins in the offseason to act as an insurance policy against the possibility that Fleury found himself repeating last year's playoff disaster against the Philadelphia Flyers.

That possibility became reality in the past three games, as Fleury allowed 14 goals and the Islanders bounced back to tie the series 2-2.

The fact Vokoun won all three starts against the Islanders this season is moot.

"This is going to be a whole lot different game than Game 35 in regular season, so I'm focusing on myself," Vokoun said. "I don't even care who we play.

"If you play your game, you've got to believe it's good enough for you to be successful. That's more key for me than looking at who's our opponent and what they’re doing."

Vokoun noted that he and Fleury are close and that sometimes things just don't go your way.

"He wasn't guessing, and it wasn't like he was getting beat on straight shots," Vokoun said. "I think he didn't look like he was nervous or anything like that. I told him I thought he looked good and the puck went in. Sometimes that is going to happen.

"Some of the games I went in, I feel the best and I ended up getting pulled, and some games you are in the warm-up and you are like, 'Oh my god! I'm not able to stop anything,' and you get a shutout. It's funny sometimes how things work out for goalies. The toughest thing is there is nobody to help you."

Still, Vokoun has a job to do. He said he and Fleury will deal with whatever happens after they get through this.

Fleury, naturally, took the news hard.

"Losing, that's what's hard," he said Thursday morning. "That's what sucks, you know?"

He said Vokoun has been terrific against the Islanders this season and that he is confident the veteran netminder will be fine.

"I'm sure he will be great tonight," Fleury said.

As for the decision to make the switch, Fleury said he understands.

"A lot of goals, you know?" he said. "My job's to stop the puck. It's frustrating. I wish I would have done better, but I guess it's in the past.

"Looking forward to another shot. But not tonight."

If this move does not prompt a lot of self-assessment throughout the Penguins' lineup, it's hard to imagine what would.

The Islanders have not just exploited Fleury. They have turned careless turnovers by Pittsburgh into quality scoring chances and goals. They have continued to show impressive push-back in the face of the highly skilled Penguins.

"He's played great for us every chance that he's gotten," Pittsburgh defenseman Mark Eaton said of Vokoun. "In the same sense it's a wake-up call for us as well, because by no means can you fault [Fleury]. It's us in front of him, so it energizes us to get playing better."

From the Islanders' perspective, the move is a reflection of how they have managed to dictate so much of what has happened in this most curious of series.

Just don't expect them to change what they've been doing just because the familiar No. 29 is not between the pipes for the Penguins.

"For us, we can't focus on one individual," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "For us, our mindset can't change."


PITTSBURGH -- Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s hard not to imagine that the Pittsburgh Penguins' Dan Bylsma has just made his most important decision as a head coach.

A man who won a Stanley Cup after just a few months on the job in June 2009, a man who won a Jack Adams Award as the coach of the year two years later to establish himself as one of the top young coaches in the game, has decided he’s seen enough of franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and will turn to veteran Tomas Vokoun to keep his team’s Stanley Cup dreams alive.

Bylsma announced Wednesday afternoon that Vokoun, who has not played in an NHL playoff game since 2007, will start for the Penguins in Game 5 Thursday night.

"We brought Tomas Vokoun in to play big games for us and be a goaltender we can count on to go in and play big games," Bylsma said.

"He’s done that this year for us. He has been very good against the Islanders in the three games that he’s played against the Islanders," the coach added. "We’re getting a guy who’s real capable, a guy going in and being a great goalie for us."

As much as there is a shocking element to the goaltending switch, the bottom line is that Fleury gave Bylsma little choice.

Fleury appears to have reverted almost instantly to the Marc-Andre Fleury we saw bumbling through a first-round loss to Philadelphia a year ago. After shutting out a timid New York Islanders team in Game 1, Fleury has allowed 14 goals in the last three games, two of which have resulted in losses.

Not all the goals are Fleury’s fault, but enough are to suggest this is a goaltender in the middle of a significant crisis of confidence with his team now needing to win two out of three to avoid the embarrassment of being eliminated by an eighth seed for the second time in four years. (The Canadiens dispatched the Pens in the second round in 2010.)

Fleury played Kyle Okposo’s goal from behind the net in Game 4 Tuesday like a bag of hammers, a goal that came with 1:24 left in the second period and allowed the Isles to forge a 3-3 tie going into the third period.

Then, with the Pens pressing for a tying goal late in regulation, Fleury looked like a deer in the headlights, allowing rookie Casey Cizikas to slide in a bad-angle goal to give the Isles a 6-4 victory and knot the series at two wins apiece.

In Game 2, Fleury somehow allowed the carom of an Okposo shot to come off the end boards and end up in the Penguins’ net for what would be the winning goal.

The former No. 1 overall draft pick looks like a netminder who is more than a little surprised when he does make a stop. While his teammates insist just the opposite -- that they still believe in him -- a goalie whose confidence balloon has been popped infects his teammates with the same malady, just as if it were the Ebola virus let loose in the dressing room.

Bylsma declined to discuss how the conversation went when Bylsma told Fleury he would not start Game 5, the first time in 80 Penguin postseason games that No. 29 will not be between the pipes to start.

"Not a conversation I’m going to discuss with you. But I have talked to Marc," Bylsma said.

It’s not just Fleury, of course. The team’s defensive play has taken a step backward, but instead of covering those holes in the fabric, Fleury is tugging at the loose strings, further weakening the tapestry.

"We definitely haven’t played our best hockey," defenseman Paul Martin said.

This isn’t to suggest the Islanders aren’t full value for tying the series. They are. And they are full value because they have realized a weakness in the Penguins goal and are exploiting it, sometimes shooting wide and hoping to catch Fleury overcommitting with rebounds and caroms. Other times, they appear to be shooting at his feet, looking to take advantage of poor rebound control and a lack of positioning.

But the reality is, if the Pens had even average goaltending, they would have won Games 2 and 4.

Yes, Islander netminder Evgeni Nabokov has not provided Conn Smythe-worthy netminding either, boasting a 4.56 GAA and .846 save percentage in the series, but the Islanders are the eighth seed, not a team that was the pick of many observers to cakewalk through the Eastern Conference.

And so the dice have been rolled, and the Penguins will turn to Vokoun, setting up all form of interesting storylines moving forward.

What happens if the 36-year-old, who has played in only 11 postseason games in his career, cannot give the Pens a win in Game 5 Thursday night? Do they go back to Fleury, a man who once upon a time won 30 postseason games between 2008 and 2009, for a must-win Game 6?

What if Vokoun gives you a win in Game 5 but falters in Game 6, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7? Who starts that game?

It was no coincidence that general manager Ray Shero went after Vokoun when free agency began in July. He wasn’t looking for a guy so he could rest Fleury; he was looking for a guy for just this eventuality, someone who could provide quality starts regardless of the time of the season.

Shero said on the eve of the playoffs that the challenges facing Fleury were the same that faced everyone in that room: showing they could elevate their game, especially after last year’s embarrassing defeat to the Flyers.

Vokoun was a solid 13-4 during the shortened regular season, with a respectable .919 save percentage, and was a big part of the Pens’ impressive 15-game win streak and a stretch in the second half of the season where they won 22 of 24 games.

Now he appears to give the Penguins their best chance at salvaging a series that has proved to be wildly entertaining, not to mention far closer than anyone had a right to expect.

The players who spoke to the media Wednesday either were not aware of or would not comment specifically about the goaltending change. Neither Vokoun nor Fleury was made available.

Still, Jarome Iginla talked about the dynamic of this series being as tight as it is and how it might actually benefit the Penguins.

"I think you enjoy it," Iginla said. "We get ready for a bigger battle than we had last game. And I think you just keep the focus there and love that challenge. I know we have a lot of great competitors in there that feel good today, that feel good and are excited to play tomorrow and are looking forward to it."

However the goaltending drama unfolds over the coming days, it’s hard to imagine that this move does not start the clock on Fleury’s time in Pittsburgh.

This playoff year was his opportunity to prove he was mentally tough enough to regain his form of 2008-09. Thus far he has failed, and in that failing, he has lost the confidence of the management and coaching staff.

Can he get it back?

Fleury is under contract through the 2014-15 season at an annual cap hit of $5 million with a limited no-trade clause.

It’s amazing to think that we sat with Fleury just a few days ago on the eve of this series and chatted about his newborn daughter and his ability to let things go, to move on from poor performances. He talked about how he had taken some time to look at the mistakes of the Philadelphia series and tried to put that series behind him.

But what was it that Bob Dylan sang, "But all the while I was alone the past was close behind"?

As it turns out for Fleury, the distance between the past and the present isn’t so far at all. In fact, it appears the two are the same, which has forced Bylsma into a decision that has altered the foundation of this team.
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The Islanders are not simply happy to be here.

Proving that they can be more than just competitive with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Islanders edged the top seed in the East 6-4 in a wild romp at Nassau Coliseum Tuesday night to even the series 2-2.

Scoring six goals against a supremely shaky Marc-Andre Fleury, the Isles might also have planted some serious doubt within the Penguins' room about their starting goaltender.

[+] EnlargeJosh Bailey
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsThe Islanders evened up the series at two games apiece on Tuesday.
Fleury has now given up 14 goals in four games this series, leading many to wonder whether veteran backup Tomas Vokoun will get the start in goal for Game 5 on Thursday in Pittsburgh.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma declined to say who would start, but he didn’t rule out Vokoun as a possibility.

“We’re not going to talk about our starting goaltender for Game 5 right now,” Bylsma said.

It wasn’t just Fleury who gave up questionable goals -- Isles netminder Evgeni Nabokov has a few he’d probably like back as well -- in what turned out to be a wildly entertaining game between two teams trading scoring chances at a frenetic pace.

After seeing leads quickly evaporate in the first two periods, the Islanders rattled off three goals in the final frame. Captain Mark Streit, who finished with three points, tied the game at 3 with his second goal of the game early in the third, and superstar center John Tavares snapped a 4-4 draw to score what would hold up as the game-winner midway through the period.

Tavares stick handled his way to the doorstep and chased his own rebound to beat Fleury’s outstretched pad for a 5-4 lead at 10:11. Fourth-line sparkplug Casey Cizikas added an insurance goal with less than two minutes remaining -- the final display of Fleury’s frustrating night.

Before that bizarre play, in which he was out of position and slow to react to Cizikas cutting to the net, Fleury gave up a real softie to Kyle Okposo in the second period.

Okposo threw the puck at the net from behind the goal line and banked it in off Fleury’s pads at 18:36.

The handful of blunders was eerily reminiscent of last year’s meltdown in the first round of the playoffs, when Fleury surrendered a dizzying 26 goals over six games to the Philadelphia Flyers.

“We know how he played last year against Philly, but we just want to go get traffic in front of him, get shots, shoot the puck,” Okposo said. “We didn’t shoot the puck enough in the second. We came out in the third, peppered him and got in his kitchen a little bit.”

Rugged forward Matt Martin said the team let Fleury off too easy in Game 1 when he recorded a 5-0 shutout. Since then, they’ve amped up the pressure.

“Game 1, we didn’t test him enough. He had a shutout. Luckily, Game 2 we were able to get some on him and since then, we’ve been able to capitalize on our opportunities,” Martin said. "I think if you take away any goalie’s confidence, it’s hard to make saves.”

By contrast, the Islanders confidence seems to be soaring after Game 4’s victory, one that ensures they’ll get another game at home in front of a raucous Nassau Coliseum crowd.

"Game 3 was heartbreaking and we found a way to put it behind us, so the nice thing is that we get another game at home here," Martin said. "The crowd’s been fantastic for us."

Even without top-pair defenseman Andrew MacDonald, who was forced from the game with an upper-body injury in the second period, the Islanders seem encouraged by their chances from here on out.

They’ll take momentum into Game 5 and the knowledge that these Penguins are a beatable team.

Although an inexperienced squad, the Islanders have matured, both from earlier this season and maybe even earlier this series, into one capable of managing the momentum swings and surges within a game.

“We put so much effort into getting here, there was no doubt we wanted to make the most of this opportunity," Tavares said. "We weren’t just satisfied being here. We believe in this room, obviously. ... There are a lot of guys stepping up for us here and that’s what we need.”

Morning jam: Hot stats from Thursday's games

February, 1, 2013
2/01/13
11:31
AM ET
Sabres 7, Bruins 4
* Thomas Vanek (BUF): 8th career hat trick, 2 assists (5 points ties career high)
* Sabres: win ends 4-game winless streak
* Bruins: first loss of season (5-1-1) win would have equaled best start in franchise history
* Bruins: allowed 4 third period goals (had not allowed a goal in the 3rd period this season)

The Bruins led 3-1 against the Sabres before falling 7-4. FROM ELIAS: Entering tonight's game and dating back to the start of last season, the Bruins were 41-0-0 in games where they had a two-goal lead at any point in the game.

FROM ELIAS: Thomas Vanek is the first NHL player to score five or more points in a game twice in his team’s first seven games of a season since Mario Lemieux did so in 1992–93. (Mario scored five points in the Penguins’ second and fourth games that season.) Vanek is also the first Buffalo player with two games of at least five points in one season since 1992–93, when Pat LaFontaine had six such games and Alexander Mogilny had three.

Penguins 3, Rangers 0
* Penguins: have won 6 straight vs Rangers; 4-1 on the road this season
* Evgeni Malkin (Penguins): goal and an assist; has 5 points in the 2 games between the teams
* James Neal (Penguins): 3rd goal in 2 games vs Rangers this season
* Tomas Vokoun (Penguins): 49th career shutout (3rd vs Rangers); 1 more shutout would make him 4th active goalie with 50

FROM ELIAS: Tomas Vokoun recorded his first shutout for the Penguins and the 49th shutout of his NHL career with a 3–0 win over the Rangers in New York. Vokoun has three career shutouts against the Rangers and they’ve all been for different teams. Before Thursday’s clean sheet for Pittsburgh he blanked the Rangers with Nashville (October 2006) and Florida (January 2011). Vokoun is the sixth goaltender with shutouts against the Rangers for three different NHL teams. The others are Lorne Chabot, Harry Lumley, Terry Sawchuk, Rogie Vachon and Sean Burke.

Sharks 3, Oilers 2 (SO)
* Sharks: NHL-best 7-0-0; best start in franchise history
* Antti Niemi (SJ): 6-0-0 this season
* 2nd straight win in shootout (0 shootout goals allowed in either)
* Oilers: 2-1-1 on road this season (all 4 games decided by 1 goal)
* Taylor Hall & Sam Gagner (EDM): goal each; both players on 7-game point streaks

Avalanche 6, Flames 3
* Flames penalty with 2:48 remaining resulted in go-ahead goal by Paul Stastny (STAS-nee) on ensuing power play
* John Mitchell, P.A. Parenteau, Paul Stastny (COL): 2 goals each
* Avalanche: 3 game losing streak snapped

FROM ELIAS: John Mitchell, Paul Stastny and P.A. Parenteau each scored two goals for the Avalanche in its 6–3 win at Calgary. It was only the third time since the Quebec Nordiques relocated to Denver in 1995 that three Colorado players each scored at least two goals in the same game.

Panthers 6, Jets 3
* Panthers: season high 6 goals (1 more than previous 5 games combined)
* Panthers: win snaps 5-game losing streak
* Alex Kovalev (FLA): 430th career goal (breaks tie with Bill Guerin for 66th in NHL history)
* Tomas Fleischmann (FLA): career high 3 assists

Predators 2, Kings 1 (SO)
* Predators: 0-3 on power play (0-12 last 4 games)
* Predators: win snaps 3-game losing streak
* Kings: only 3 wins in last 10 home games vs Predators

Maple Leafs 3, Capitals 2
* Matt Frattin (TOR): 4th goal in 4 games this season (8 goals in 57 career games entering this season)
* Maple Leafs: won back-to-back games for 1st time this season
* Alex Ovechkin (WSH): Goal (2); snaps 4-game goalless streak vs Maple Leafs
* Capitals: 1 of 2 teams with just 1 win this season (Flames the other)

Islanders 5, Devils 4 (F/OT)
* Islanders: 3-1-1 on 5-game road trip
* John Tavares (NYI): 2 goals, assist; 7 points in last 3 games
* Devils: winless in last 3 games
* These two teams play again on Super Bowl Sunday

Blues 4, Blue Jackets 1
* Blues: 6-1 matches best 7-game start since 1997-98 (started 7-1)
* Brian Elliott (STL): 24 saves
* Teams combined for 15 penalties in 2nd period (8 players received fighting penalties)
* 2nd period: Blues (44 penalty minutes) and Blue Jackets (34) received the most penalty minutes of ANY teams in ANY period this season

Need to know: Oh, what a wacky night

February, 1, 2013
2/01/13
10:45
AM ET

• On a night full of wacky stuff, you could hardly find a wackier game than the Buffalo Sabres' 7-4 win over Northeast Division-leading Boston. The Sabres had been winless in four. At one point, they trailed the Bruins 3-1 after the teams went scoreless through the first period before combining for 11 goals in the final two periods. Thomas Vanek -- who else? -- paced the Sabres with three goals (he now has six) and added two assists. The Bruins lost for the first time in regulation this season and, after allowing just 12 goals in their first six games, were kicked in the defensive shins.

• Speaking of wacky, how about the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils going hammer-and-tong in a 5-4 Isles overtime win? The Isles took leads of 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 before Brad Boyes’ OT winner. The win was the second in a row for the Isles, who are now 4-2-1 and pulled into a tie in points with the Devils, who are the only team in the Eastern Conference without a regulation loss and with points in six straight games (they’re 3-0-3).

• Not so wacky was the San Jose Sharks winning again, edging Edmonton 3-2 in a shootout to maintain their perfect 7-0-0 record out of the gate. The wacky element to the game was the fact that scoring leaders Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton did not factor into the score sheet for the Sharks. Kudos to the young Oilers, though, who fell behind 2-0 midway through the second period but bounced back to force extra time and pick up a point in the process. The Oil are tied for first in the Northwest with a 4-2-1 record.

• Just when it looked like the New York Rangers were about to start climbing back to their rightful place atop the Atlantic Division/Eastern Conference standings, they stubbed their toe, being shut out 3-0 at home by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens had looked more than a little off while being waxed 4-1 at home by the Islanders in their previous outing, and yet behind the 28-save performance of Tomas Vokoun, the Pens looked much more like the team many had envisioned when the season began. Evgeni Malkin, off to a slow start, scored his second of the season and added an assist for the 4-3-0 Penguins. The Rangers fell to 3-4-0 after winning two in a row.

• The St. Louis Blues continue to roll, as they won their fourth in a row to move to 6-1-0 by whipping hapless Columbus 4-1 in Columbus. Pretty typical Blues night as they got goals from four different players, including three first-period markers to chase starting Blue Jackets netminder Sergei Bobrovsky. Brian Elliott was solid for the Blues while stopping 24 of 25 shots. Vladimir Tarasenko continued his strong start with his fifth goal of the season, most among rookies. The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, have one win in their past seven games and have scored more than two goals just twice.

• Nice effort from the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday as they poured 40 shots at Washington Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth and twice overcame one-goal deficits to beat the reeling Caps 3-2. James van Riemsdyk is starting to come around, as he got his fourth of the season, and Matt Frattin, who scored the winner against Buffalo earlier in the week in the waning seconds of overtime, scored the winner midway through the third period. The Leafs moved to 4-3-0. Washington did get a goal from Alex Ovechkin, his second, but fell to a shocking 1-5-1.

• The desperate and goal-starved Florida Panthers somehow managed to score five times in the third period to erase a 3-2 deficit and defeat Winnipeg 6-3. The win, sparked by a goal and an assist by rookie Jonathan Huberdeau and the first goal of the season by Kris Versteeg, halted a miserable five-game losing streak during which the Panthers had managed to score just five goals. The Jets have lost two in a row and once again are struggling to keep pucks out of their net. They are tied for 24th in goals allowed per game.

• In a battle of two stumbling squads, the Colorado Avalanche fairly exploded offensively, doubling the host Calgary Flames by a 6-3 count. Paul Stastny scored his first two goals of the season and P.A. Parenteau continued his strong play for the Avs with two goals and an assist to stop a three-game slide that had seen the Avs outscored 11-1. Goalie J.S. Giguere made 25 stops in earning his first win in his first start of the season. Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff gave up five goals on 21 shots.

• Talk about a battle of popgun offenses, it’s no surprise that Nashville and Los Angeles took eight rounds of a shootout before the Predators sneaked out a 2-1 win. Nashville ranks last in the league in goals per game and the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings rank 28th. The Preds managed just 14 shots on goal in spite of collecting two much-needed points. The Kings, meanwhile, are a mediocre 2-2-2.
Penguins GM Ray Shero kicked off what should be another busy offseason around the NHL with an interesting trade and signing Monday, acquiring goalie Tomas Vokoun from the Washington Capitals for a seventh-round pick in this month’s draft and then signing the UFA-to-be netminder to a $4 million, two-year deal.

But first, after getting permission from the Caps, he spoke with Vokoun for 40 minutes Sunday to ensure the veteran wanted to go to Pittsburgh.

"I wanted to find out his interest level in playing here," Shero told ESPN.com Monday. "He wants to go to a place where he has a chance to win. He’s 35 and will be 36. We talked about what we had here. He’s played against us a lot, he was comfortable with the setup here and confident he could help Marc and help our team. He said he was excited when he heard it was Pittsburgh."

Vokoun is a clear upgrade over backup Brent Johnson and, as a longtime starter in the NHL, will allow Marc-Andre Fleury not to be overtaxed next season. The feeling this season was that Fleury played too much and was tired come playoff time, when he was lit up by Philadelphia.

"We felt goaltending was a position we wanted to upgrade if we could," Shero said. "Marc played 69 games last season. The position has also changed and it’s much more physically demanding. The collisions at the crease, players at the net, you’re battling a lot as a goalie. Physically and mentally it takes its toll, I believe. So we talked about ways to help Marc-Andre Fleury. We like him as our goaltender but to be able to get a guy like Tomas makes sense for us."

The move won’t only keep Fleury fresh, Shero said, but also the hope is that Vokoun -- a longtime starter -- will push Fleury.

"And I know Tomas. I had him in Nashville," said Shero. "He’s a quality goaltender but also a good person. I don’t see any problems there with Marc-Andre."

Garrison talks


Contract talks between the Florida Panthers and UFA-to-be Jason Garrison will resume this week, at which point the defenseman can expect an offer from the team.

Garrison exploded for a career-high 16 goals this season while earning $700,000.

"We’re going to start the process this week, we’re going to talk and see where it goes," Panthers GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com Monday. "I talked to his agent at the combine last week and said I hoped we could get together this week and see if we could get something done."

Jagr in Flyers' future?


Where will Jaromir Jagr be next season? Possibly in Philadelphia again, although that’s not guaranteed. The 40-year-old winger, who signed a one-year, $3.3 million deal with the Flyers last summer, had a blast in Philly this season. He’s UFA July 1. His agent, Petr Svoboda, has been in touch with the Flyers.

"We’ve talked, I think there’s mutual interest there, so we’ll see," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told ESPN.com Monday.

Because of "tagging" space issues on the cap -- CBA lingo for having the maximum allowable under the cap for next season -- the Flyers wouldn’t be able to sign Jagr at the moment. They would have to wait until July 1, when the cap is expected to go up to around $70 million.

"But there’s interest from both sides," said Holmgren. "So we’ll see how it goes."

Weber in Predators' future?


Predators captain and Norris Trophy nominee Shea Weber becomes a restricted free agent July 1. At this point, there’s nothing going regarding a new contract.

"Nothing to report, no conversations, no talks yet," Weber’s agent, Kevin Epp told ESPN.com Monday.

No surprise there. The primary focus right now in Nashville is getting UFA-to-be Ryan Suter done as I wrote about last Friday.

Weber is on the back burner until that situation is resolved. Suter's agent, Neil Sheehy, via email Monday said there was nothing new on that front.

It’ll be interesting to see how Weber reacts depending on what Suter does. Would Weber want to sign long-term if Suter leaves? Can the Preds afford to keep Weber around another season if he doesn’t want to sign a long-term extension? I just don’t see how they can. If Weber doesn’t sign long-term, surely the Preds have to shop him this summer. Either Suter and Weber both sign extensions to stay in Nashville or they’re both gone this summer. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between, in my mind.

The Capitals-Penguins rivalry took on another chapter Thursday night when the latest thrilling encounter between the two rivals was marred by a fight that made one's stomach churn.

Washington's Jay Beagle was dropped by a thunderous right hand from Pittsburgh's Arron Asham in a total mismatch of a fight that erupted after the Caps winger received a roughing penalty on Pens star blueliner Kris Letang. Asham came to Letang's defense, and Beagle didn't have much of a choice but to drop the gloves with a rugged customer.

You can see the video here and above.

Asham's antics were all the buzz on Twitter after he signaled the international signs for "you're out" and "sleeping" as Beagle lay on the ice bleeding. That's bush league. We'll give Asham credit for owning up to his actions and calling the gestures "classless" after the game, but it was still a stupid move when he did it.

What bothers me more than anything was the momentary fear that Beagle wasn't going to get up. Today's NHL fighters are punching harder than ever. I hold my breath every time there's a knockout punch in this league.

Either way, there will not be any league discipline for Asham, according to this statement released by the NHL late Thursday night: "Nothing will come of the Asham incident. Asham was remorseful after the game and didn't realize how badly hurt Beagle was at the time of the incident."

Break up the Islanders!

Seriously, these young studs might very well make some noise this season. John Tavares was most impressive again, posting two goals and two assists in a 5-1 rout against the visiting Tampa Bay Lighting. Tavares seems to have taken a giant step in his play this season. He was good last season, but he looks great right now. He's stronger on the puck, quicker to the net and more decisive. Real impressive.

Don't believe in the Cup hangover?

Just ask the 2011 Stanley Cup finalists, Boston (1-3-0) and Vancouver (1-2-1), as they have combined for only two wins in eight games after Vancouver was dropped 2-0 in Detroit on Thursday. To Vancouver's credit, the Canucks played a decent road game in a tough rink in a back-to-back situation after playing the night before in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, ho-hum, the Red Wings are 3-0-0 to start the season and perhaps not too thrilled with all the experts (including this one) picking the Blackhawks to win the Central Division. Jiri Hudler, who didn't have a good 2010-11 season with the Wings in his return from overseas, has looked sharp early on and has three points (1-2) in three games.

Brodeur hurt

The Devils survived the loss of veteran goalie Martin Brodeur to a shoulder injury and still beat the Los Angeles Kings 2-1 in a shootout. Brodeur, hammered by injuries over the past few seasons, told reporters after the game it wasn't serious. The Devils looked good in outshooting the Kings 37-27. Looking at the big picture, however, Brodeur's injury scare reminds us again that one day he won't be around. At some point, maybe this summer, it behooves the Devils to phone L.A. about Jonathan Bernier or Vancouver about Cory Schneider.

And back to Pittsburgh

Caps netminder Tomas Vokoun was hard on himself after getting shelled for five goals Monday night against Tampa Bay. He was terrific Thursday night against the Penguins, as the Caps were outshot 18-3 in the third period and 41-19 overall. Everyone take a deep breath in Washington. Your team is 3-0-0 and your new goalie will be fine.

Report: Caps will go with Neuvirth in opener

October, 7, 2011
10/07/11
2:03
PM ET

According to a report from The Washington Post out of today's morning skate, Michal Neuvirth said he got the starting nod in net for the Washington Capitals' home opener against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night.

"It feels pretty good. I'm pretty excited about the game tomorrow, we want to win on home ice," Neuvirth said. "I was a little surprised, but I think I had a great training camp and very good preseason games and probably that's why I'm playing tomorrow."

The decision is being met with some surprise given the team's signing of Tomas Vokoun this past offseason. During training camp, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau had seemed to already establish the pecking order by saying that Vokoun's accomplishments will make him the starter. But that's not the case, at least for the opener.

"No, I’m not really nervous because I'm not playing," Vokoun told local reporters. "Whatever, you know. Supposedly I'm going to play the next game."

Boudreau would not comment on his decision.

"I didn't know that was public knowledge," Boudreau said. "Well, I'm not ready to comment on that.

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