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May 9, 2013

Pens turn to Vokoun for Game 5

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma insists he still believes in Marc-Andre Fleury, that the issues for the reeling Penguins go far beyond the struggles of their Stanley Cup-winning goaltender.

Still, that didn’t stop Bylsma from making a switch he hopes will shift momentum in Pittsburgh’s highly entertaining, but slightly bewildering first-round playoff series with the New York Islanders.

Tomas Vokoun will get the start in net for the Penguins in Game 5 on Thursday, a move necessitated by three straight shaky performances by Fleury and Vokoun’s eye-popping numbers against the Islanders this season.

“We brought Tomas Vokoun in to play big games for us,” Bylsma said.

The 36-year-old veteran’s next start might be the biggest of his career. The eighth-seeded Islanders tied the series at 2-all with a wild, momentum-swinging 6-4 victory on Tuesday night, one that seemed to further erode Fleury’s confidence. New York scored three times in the game’s final 16 minutes, including a pair of soft goals that found Fleury woefully out of position.

Fleury expressed his frustration afterward. His remorse, however, didn’t stop him from being yanked in the playoffs for the first time in his career. The last time someone other than Fleury started a postseason game for the Penguins was in 2001.

Vokoun, acquired in a trade with Washington last spring, served as 1b to Fleury’s 1a during the regular season, going 13-4 with a 2.45 goals-against-average. He was even better against the Islanders, posting a perfect 3-0 record while stopping 98 of 101 shots.

Now he’ll be tasked with doing something he’s never done in his 15-year career, help get a team past the first round. Vokoun’s playoff record is 3-8, though those appearances came for overmatched Nashville teams in 2004 and 2007.

The top-seeded Penguins aren’t overmatched. At the moment, they do appear overwhelmed.

New York looked to be little more than a speedbump for Pittsburgh after the Penguins rolled to a 5-0 win in Game 1. Yet the Islanders have bounced back to win two of the last three while pumping 16 goals by Fleury. New York’s dominant performance in third period of Game 4 allowed the Islanders to escape what would have been a 3-1 hole. It also gave their confidence another rocket-fueled boost.

“We’re hoping that they are a little rattled and they are a little worried about us because we think that we have every opportunity to win this series,” New York defenseman Matt Carkner said. “We’re here to win this series.”

Two more nights like Tuesday will have the Islanders into the second round for the first time in 20 years. New York’s last playoff series win came against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in 1993. That series went seven games. This one has all the makings of heading there too.

The longer things go, the more Pittsburgh hopes its star-studded roster dotted with Stanley Cup winners and Cup-hungry veterans will get into a rhythm. It hasn’t happened in the last three games, as the Islanders have turned each contest into a track meet, luring the Penguins into sloppy mistakes New York has greedily turned into goals.

No miscue loomed larger than a silly giveaway by reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin in the third period on Tuesday. With the score tied at 4, Malkin was attempting to clear the zone when he decided to throw a pass toward the middle instead of safely up the boards. Islanders center John Tavares picked up the lazy pass, swooped in on Fleury then squeezed off a wrist shot and the ensuing rebound that proved to be the game-winner.

Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby credited the Islanders for their relentless forecheck but allowed the Penguins could be considerably smarter with the puck.

“Part of it is us not making bad plays sometimes, too,” he said. “When they’re coming that hard the play needs to be made and you’ve got to execute or else they’re coming back the other way pretty quickly.”

New York has counter-punched the NHL’s highest-scoring team much in the same way the Flyers did to the Penguins in the first round a year ago. Philadelphia knocked off Pittsburgh in six high-scoring, defense-optional games. The Penguins stressed they had learned a painful lesson. It hasn’t exactly looked like it for most of the last three games.

“They’re playing aggressive and we plan on matching that and finding a way to win this series,” Pittsburgh forward Jarome Iginla said. “I think this could be great for us.”

It could be great for the Islanders too. New York spent the last six weeks of the regular season scrambling to make the postseason. After needing a game to get their feet set, the Islanders have gone skate-to-skate against a team with far more experience about what it takes to be successful this time of year.

Heading into a best-of-3 to determine who makes it to the conference semifinals, New York is only too aware that it’s not supposed to be here. The Islanders are playing with house money, or more specifically, Pittsburgh’s money.

“It’s where we want to be,” Carkner said. “We’ve been playing some pretty good hockey. To win (Game 4), that was a really gutsy win and we’re excited.”

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