Before a game last week, Tomas Vokoun spoke up. He told his Washington Capitals teammates he was going to come out of his net more and play the puck.
It was part of his idea to develop more of a rhythm even when facing fewer shots. Since straying from his crease more often, Vokoun and the Caps haven’t lost, as the 35-year-old goaltender has not only been on top of his game but helped spark an offense that has otherwise sputtered.
“Stopping it for us around the boards, it just helps tremendously,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We’re starting to get out a little bit better.”
Vokoun is not known for his puck-handling skills like Martin Brodeur or even Washington prospect Braden Holtby, whom teammates have joked is more proficient than some skaters. He has had some adventures in the past three games but nothing that has cost the Caps a goal.
It’s a return to the familiar for Vokoun, who was told to stay in his net specifically during Bruce Boudreau’s tenure as coach. But a 5-2 loss in Los Angeles was a lesson in needing to help out the defense.
“When you don’t come out, you’re going to make mistakes once in a while just like everybody else,” Vokoun said. “But it puts too much pressure on our D. They get hit a lot.”
The Caps haven’t had to worry about that as much lately as Vokoun hasn’t hesitated to get out and play the puck often. Coach Dale Hunter is more than OK with that, though he recognizes the risky element of what can happen if things go wrong.
But the benefits outweigh that. Defenseman Dennis Wideman compared it to facing the New Jersey Devils, who boast Brodeur and Johan Hedberg and force opponents to change their approach.
“For any goalie that can play the puck well, it can totally break down a forecheck,” Wideman said. “Basically if the goalie’s good at playing the puck and you dump it to him, you’re not getting a forecheck.”
During this homestand, the Caps have been outshot 105-65 yet are 3-0-0 thanks to Vokoun.
“He’s been awesome for us. We need him to be awesome,” Alzner said. “That’s the way we need both goalies to play if we want to win games because we are going to give up chances.”
And though the offense has not clicked terribly well in these victories, Hunter’s system is predicated on quick breakouts from the defensive zone. Vokoun’s willingness to act almost as a third defenseman behind the net aids that.
“To have him getting out and moving it to the open D-men, it just makes the transition from defense to offense a lot smoother,” Wideman said.
Making something happen up the ice is up to the forwards, but at this point the Caps are happy to do whatever it takes to keep Vokoun comfortable. He’s 7-2-0 in nine straight starts with a 1.97 goals-against average and .940 save percentage.
Having to face an average of 32 shots a game is something Jeff Halpern called a “recipe for disaster,” despite Vokoun’s dominance.
“But I think when he’s playing well, aside from what the other teams are thinking, it gives our team confidence,” Halpern said. “You can see there’s some teams in the league right now where their goalies are struggling and you can see the whole team sag, and right now I think we’re doing the opposite. For the most part we’re feeding off his confidence right now.”