Tomas Vokoun will be the first to tell you that this season has not gone as smoothly as he would have liked.
But as the Washington Capitals round the midpoint of the 2011-12 season, Vokoun appears to have settled into the No. 1 goaltending spot that he was expected to hold from the moment he signed here as a free agent in July.
The veteran netminder is expected to make a ninth straight start on Sunday against the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center, which would tie his longest string of consecutive games this season. Over the eight previous games, Vokoun has stopped 224 of the 240 shots he’s faced, good for a .933 save percentage and 2.00 goals against average, while anchoring the Capitals to a 6-2 record in that span.
“It’s easier, especially on a goalie, when you can play” regularly, Vokoun said. “It’s obviously a little easier on your mental state of mind when you know you’re going to play, even if you make a mistake. But saying that, this is a performance business, and if you don’t perform, they’re going to put in somebody else.”
The willingness of the coaching staff to rely on him, even after a pair of losses to San Jose and Los Angeles on last week’s trip, was important to Vokoun. It served as evidence of their trust and confidence, and perhaps spoke to the importance of seeing the 35-year-old Czech get on a roll.
While much has and will be made about whether Washington’s offensive stars will get on track for prolonged lengths of time, it is equally important for the team to have a reliable option in net. The height of the Capitals’ struggles have coincided with unpredictable goalie performances that were dotted by demoralizing soft goals. As Vokoun’s self-assurance has grown, so has the Capitals’ collective fortitude.
“He’s really finding his game right now,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “He’s really trusting in the players, trusting in the system and we’re doing the same with him as well. We know if there’s a little bit of a breakdown he’s going to be there to make a huge save. It just gives us so much more confidence that we can play with and know that he’s going to bail us out because mistakes are going to happen.”
Vokoun’s renewed confidence has been on display in his recent outings, like his 30-save shutout against Pittsburgh on Wednesday that included a few stunning stops on all-star center Evgeni Malkin. It’s also been visible in his puck-handling as Vokoun begins to take a more active role in the team’s defense.
Accustomed to playing the puck regularly while a member of the Florida Panthers and Nashville Predators, Vokoun was not given the green light to puck-handle under previous coach Bruce Boudreau. After seeing the Capitals’ defensemen struggle under the pressure of opposing forechecks and fail to clear the puck out of the zone in recent contests — particularly a 5-2 loss to Los Angeles on Monday — Vokoun realized he could aide his teammates.
“It showed in L.A. when you don’t come out” what happens, said Vokoun, who talked to the blue liners and told them before facing the Penguins he planned on playing the puck. “It puts too much pressure on our ‘D’ and they get hit a lot. This way it [makes] a point of the other team knowing you’re going to come out and you’re going to try to stop it, maybe they have to shoot it harder and it’s harder to retrieve. For the ‘D’ too, most of the time you will stop it and you can make a play without them trying to get the puck off the wall.”
Vokoun playing the puck not only takes some of the brunt of thwarting a forecheck off the defensemen but it also allows the veteran netminder to remain engaged in the game. During periods of play where he faces a light workload of shots to stop, handling the puck and increasing his involvement with the defenseman helps keep him sharp.
A goaltender playing the puck has pros and cons. As beneficial as it can be, when they make mistakes, it can lead directly to an opposing goal. Coach Dale Hunter understands the risks but said that he will encourage Vokoun to continue to play the puck.
“Tomas has been solid and his numbers show it since I’ve been here,” Hunter said. “You have to make the right decisions, the puck bounces. . . . If you’re capable of doing it — if you can do it, do it. If you’re not comfortable coming out, when you’re not comfortable making the right plays, then you should stay in.”