- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PITTSBURGH -- If now is not the time for Marc-Andre Fleury, then when?
Or more to the point, if it is not time now for the return of the longtime Penguins starter and former No. 1 overall draft pick, then the answer "never."
That the Pittsburgh Penguins' goaltending situation is once again a topic of discussion just one game into the Eastern Conference finals is not a slight in the least at Tomas Vokoun, who has provided stability and consistency since coming into the Pittsburgh net for Game 5 of the Penguins' opening round series against the New York Islanders.
Since that time, Vokoun has done exactly what the Penguins have asked of him. He helped stabilize a team that was starting to go adrift and has gone 6-2 in leading the Pens to their first conference finals since winning a Stanley Cup in 2009.
Even in the 3-0 loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night, one could hardly fault the veteran netminder for the Penguins' woes.
The first Bruin goal by David Krejci nicked a prone Paul Martin's skate and squeezed between Vokoun's pads. The second Krejci picked up his own rebound after defenseman Kris Letang chose to try to jump into the air and snare the puck rather than simply tying up Krejci. And the third goal, by Nathan Horton, came when Vokoun had basically been abandoned by all his defenders.
Still, there remains a prevailing feeling at least from outside the Penguins dressing room that if the star-studded Penguins are to make good on their significant promise and advance at least to the finals, it will be with Fleury in net.
One NHL coach said simply he did not trust Vokoun to get the job done, while another Eastern Conference scout said the goaltending matchup between Vokoun and Tuukka Rask, who delivered his first-ever playoff shutout with a fine 29-save performance Saturday, is a mismatch in favor of the Bruins.
And while the goals might not have been Vokoun's fault when the Bruins went up 3-0 at the 7:51 mark of the third period, it was a bit of a surprise that Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma didn't go to Fleury just to get him some game action.
It seemed the perfect opportunity to ease Fleury back into the competition after he went sideways in the middle of the opening round against the Islanders while at the same time giving Vokoun a breather in a game that was pretty much out of hand.
Did Bylsma, who will not discuss matters of injury or lineup decisions, have an expectation that at some point Fleury would return to action this spring?
And if so, what conditions would present themselves to prompt that change?
"You asked me if I have any expectations. I don't have expectations. We were hoping to win eight in a row. If that were the case, we wouldn't see a different goalie," Bylsma said Sunday.
"That's not the case right now. We lost Game 1. But Tomas played real well in the game, was strong in the game, made big saves. We don't get this win. The wins and losses aren't necessarily an indicator of what we're going to do with the goaltending situation," he said. "But I'm confident in Marc-Andre as a goalie, I'm confident in what he can do when he gets in there."
Now, we're not exactly sure what that means but if Bylsma believes in his heart of hearts that Fleury is ultimately the guy who will lead them to the game's grandest stage, then wouldn't Game 2, at home, trailing by just a game in the series, be the perfect re-entry place for him?
The decision to yank Fleury was gutsy -- how could it not be, given that Fleury had started every Penguin playoff game since he became a pro? -- but ultimately one that had to be made.
This is different, a more subtle situation.
What is the message Bylsma sends to the room if he pulls Vokoun, who has merely turned in a 1.98 GAA and .937 save percentage, third among playoff netminders after the Game 1 loss?
There is an element of the unfair if that's the route Bylsma goes Monday night.
But what if he doesn't make the switch and the Penguins drop a second game at home, forcing them into a must-win situation in Game 3 in Boston? Would that be a better for scenario for Fleury to reappear and test what has been revealed these past two playoff years as a fragile psyche?
One would hardly think so.
Isn't there more of a safety net in starting Fleury in Game 2?
Either way, Bylsma knows the goaltending issue that had been dormant for the last couple of weeks has now been revived.
Unless of course the Penguins' playoff plans for the balance of the playoffs do not include Fleury outside of injury relief.
If that's the case – and there are certainly signs that point to this being the case – then the answer to the original question is simple: "never."
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