Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee was content to start the 2010-11 season with Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby as his young, but promising goaltending tandem. That is, until a proven veteran fell into his lap.
Tomas Vokoun, with 13 years of experience to his credit, wanted to play for a Stanley Cup contender for the first time in his career and took a steep pay cut to do so. He signed with the Caps for one year and $1.5 million after earning $6.3 million in the final year of his four-year contract with the Florida Panthers.
Former head coach Bruce Boudreau anointed Vokoun as the starting goaltender upon his arrival, which made sense, considering he would be the first true No. 1 goalie this team has had since Olaf Kolzig in 2007-08. He was also supposed to provide a steady presence in net. While the former may still be true five months later -- Vokoun has received 21 starts so far this season -- the latter hasn't been that way lately.
That much is obvious after yet another shaky (at best) performance by Vokoun in Tuesday's 5-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. Vokoun allowed four goals on 21 shots in 40 minutes before being pulled in favor of Neuvirth to start the third, the third time this season that he has been pulled.
"It was terrible performance," Vokoun said. "Certainly not pleasant and it's unfortunate in a game like that, but there's really not much to say. It was a bad performance by me."
In what the Caps considered a measuring stick game against the Eastern Conference's best team, Vokoun allowed a soft goal to Scott Hartnell late in the first period that seemed to deflate not only the goaltender, but the entire team. The Flyers poured it on in the second period, scoring three goals, two of which were deflected and another one that can be considered soft.
"The first one I saw was a bad goal," Vokoun said. "Second one, actually Mathieu Perreault tipped it right in front of me. Third one, I think their guy tipped it. It was their guy and [Marcus Johansson] just went in front of me when the puck was coming. The fourth one I didn't see it and it just went through our defenseman. But still, you got to make the saves. There's no excuses. It was a bad game. I didn't help the team at all and that's my job."
Tuesday's game was a microcosm of Vokoun's season, which has been plagued by inconsistency. In his first start, he allowed five goals on 28 shots, but settled down in a 6-5 shootout win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on October 10. Vokoun then allowed two goals or fewer in six straight starts before giving up three or more in the following three. Overall this season, Vokoun has allowed three or more goals in nearly half of his appearances (10 of 22) and has done so in six of his last nine starts.
Vokoun's 2.81 goals against average is ranked 48th among NHL goaltenders and his .906 save percentage is 42nd. His goaltending partner, Neuvirth, isn't doing much better. In limited action, Neuvirth's 3.73 GAA and .875 SV% are both ranked 70th out of 71 ranked goaltenders this season.
"Sometimes, [Vokoun's] going to have a bad one," Troy Brouwer said. "That's when the team needs to pick him up and help him out. But we didn't help him out. We're not giving him any help, tonight especially. We just let guys walk over the blueline, they looked us off coming over the blueline and we just couldn't stay with them. We were passing them up and just giving them too much opportunity."
As Brouwer noted, the Capitals are not giving Vokoun much support, scoring just one goal in six of Vokoun's last 10 starts. But with that said, the bottom line is clear. If Washington isn't scoring, Vokoun has to be better and keep his team in the game.
Entering the season, Vokoun had a 2.56 GAA and .923 save percentage in four seasons with the Panthers, and his .922 save percentage was the highest among goaltenders since the NHL lockout. In those four years in Florida, the Panthers were never a serious playoff contender and relied on Vokoun to win games for them on a nightly basis (he earned 101 of the Panthers' 141 total wins in his four seasons).
When Vokoun arrived in Washington, it was thought that he didn't need to steal games for the Caps to succeed. He just had to be good. Yet, with a 15-13-1 record, the Caps are out of the current playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, territory Vokoun knows.
With that said, Vokoun needs to tap into that mentality and steal games for the Caps as they continue to struggle. Otherwise, the Caps will have more rough nights in their future.
"Like I said, it was a horrible game," Vokoun said. "It's disappointing and it's going to be [a] tough night tonight, but tomorrow's [a] new day and just got to get back to work and start over."
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