The difference a goaltender can make is often underrated. The difference in the statistics between net-minders seems much more minimal than the reality between the numbers, and those variations can so often be attributed to a number of factors such as shots allowed and team styles.
This is why adding Tomas Vokoun was the perfect answer for a Capitals team hungry to play in the fourth week of May (or longer). The goalie played for a team that gave him every excuse in the book, but he gained experience and played excellently anyway.
With all of the offensive talent a team can muster, there is no hope of achieving the Stanley Cup without top-notch goaltending. I've experienced a championship run first-hand and witnessed the reality of the NHL playoffs, which is decreased scoring.
No goalie, equals no chance.
As a Penguins fan, life in Pittsburgh has shown me the glory of playoff success, largely buoyed by Marc Andre-Fleury heroically rising to the occasion, overshadowed by scoring talents such as Sidney Crosby. His ability to make key saves during consecutive runs to the Stanley Cup Finals allowed me to understand the one concern I heard from Flyers fans a couple of Aprils ago, prior to our first-round meeting in 2009. To understand the comments, you must also know that fans in Pittsburgh are a bit spoiled, jumping down "the Flower's" bud every time somebody scores.
A fan from Philadelphia, talking on our local radio, said "Gosh, I think we can take you guys. But, what's your problem? We'd die to have Marc Andre-Fleury. He's your ticket, and to lose him makes everything else not mean a thing."
While Malkin won the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP, it could have easily been Fleury. He didn't look sensational or appear to walk on water, but he was a consistent and disciplined force in net for the Penguins. He was unflappable.
Fast-forwarding to the 2011-12 Washington Capitals, a team mired in playoff heartache in the past half-decade, the acquisition of Tomas Vokoun from the Florida Panthers will give the high-flying Caps machine its first real shot at Stanley Cup glory.
In that same 2009 season, even after falling back 2-0 in a series to Washington, loyal fans in our local market seemed confident that we would return the favor; after all, Semyon Varlamov had played about as well as humanly possible for a first-year playoff starter, with miraculous saves that consisted of equal parts luck and skill.
As the series played out, the Pens took control, scoring at least four goals in all of the final four contests of the series. Game 7 saw a critical moment:
Alexander Ovechkin had a breakaway during the game's opening stages. It would be only one save in a night of many, but it would be the moment that would showcase the value of disciplined goaltending.
Fleury robbed Ovie, his aplomb catalyzing Pittsburgh to a commanding victory.
The difference between goalies isn't just in the statistics, though there are things to be taken from the numbers. In fact, it's not in the highlight reel saves or flopping miracles. It's in the fundamentals.
It's making the saves that look easy more often than your peers.
It's about confidence, an unwavering dedication to focus on the game and the ability to step up in key moments.
Critics will cite Vokoun's losing record in Florida as ammunition against his potential. Fans in Florida, who listened to the news media as the franchise made every effort to keep their veteran net-minder, realize that his talent propelled them to far more victories than they'd have achieved without him.
His 2.30-plus annual goals against average seems pedestrian.
However, tucked away in the suitcase of a terrible team in a non-hockey market, the equivalent of an NFL team in the Alps, Vokoun has been a sensational illustration of rock-solid goaltending for years.
He may just be the best goalie who casual hockey fans have never heard about, and he played on one of the worst hockey defensive units in the history of the game.
The Panthers gave up over 2,800 shots in consecutive years from 2008 through 2010, establishing a new benchmark for refusing to sacrifice the body (blocking shots) and keeping the puck in the offensive zone. The NHL standard is about 2,400 shots allowed.
Considering their anemic offense, scoring 2.33 goals per game last season, it is no surprise that the Panthers had their goalie working hard.
In any other market, with the support of a pedestrian offensive machine, Tomas's 92.5 percent save rate would be world-burning. To put it in perspective, he will join a Capitals team with limitless offensive potential, whose dedication to improving on defensive ice will only benefit this overlooked veteran supporting their net.
As further perspective, Tim Thomas's magnificent postseason, leading the Bruins to the Stanley Cup, saw a save percentage of 93.5 percent. Where many goalies struggle to maintain a 90 percent save rate, Vokoun's career average is closer to that of Thomas's heroics than the average goalie's basic game.
It is a testament to his fundamentals and ability to see the puck and read offenses, especially considering the horrendous state of his former franchise.
This will be critical for a Washington team that has not seen the stability of a solid, proven goaltender since the prime of Olaf Kolzig, who led them further in the postseason that the modern roster has seen to-date. Kolzig's prime coincided with the aging or exodus of great veterans such as Adam Oates, Sergei Gonchar, and Peter Bondra.
Vokoun may not be in his prime, but he is not marked by blind optimism that surrounded players such as the aforementioned Varlamov. He comes with proven credentials displayed on a bad team, and his talents will be on a young, dynamic roster hungry for postseason success.
With Washington's dedication to focusing on their defensive game, confidence in their goalie will better enable them to maintain this focus while not being distracted by it offensively.
And, wisely, Bruce Boudreau has announced the former Panther as his starter to begin the upcoming regular season.
He won't lose his position atop the depth chart, either.
The regular season is not of the utmost importance, however. April through June is the key, and Vokoun's veteran presence should help give the Caps an aplomb their playoffs have lacked. The Capitals have entered the playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference for two straight years, exiting the playoffs short of the Conference Finals for four straight campaigns. The new-age Caps have never made it beyond the second round, a loss to the Penguins in 2009 marking the peak of their progression.
With actual skill in front of the net, the sky is the limit for the 2010-11 Washington Capitals.
The question is, just how snake-bitten is the franchise? Is this finally the time that they seize the moment?