PITTSBURGH — By RON COOK
You think taking down the New York Islanders in six games was rough? The Ottawa Senators will be a much tougher out.
Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov was a sieve, his poor play the biggest reason the Penguins survived and advanced. Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson stopped 171 of 180 Montreal shots -- an astonishing .950 save percentage -- as the Senators eliminated the Canadiens in five games.
Tomas Vokoun had better be pretty good in goal for the Penguins.
So had Marc-Andre Fleury, who, it says here, will play a big part in the Ottawa series.
It's safe to say Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was fighting for his job against the Islanders. The Penguins are built to win the Stanley Cup -- or at least get to the Cup final. Bylsma surely would have been fired if they went out in the first round for the third consecutive spring. He still might be fired if the team doesn't beat the Senators.
Bylsma made all the right moves late in the Islanders series. At least his players made him look like a genius. Bylsma played Tyler Kennedy and Joe Vitale for the first time in Game 5. Kennedy scored the first goal in the Penguins' 4-0 win and had the primary assist on Brooks Orpik's overtime goal in the 4-3 overtime win Saturday night in Game 6. Vitale went 9-1 on faceoffs in Game 5 and had the first assist on a Pascal Dupuis goal that tied the score in Game 6, 2-2.
"Obviously, I had a little bit of energy saved up," Kennedy said.
Kennedy and Vitale brought a ton of energy in the two games. They were difference-makers. You can knock Bylsma for not turning to them earlier, but I won't. Tanner Glass had done a decent job all season despite scoring just one goal, bringing a physical and defensive presence. Jussi Jokinen had seven goals and 11 points in 10 games after coming to the Penguins from Carolina in a trade. Making Glass and Jokinen healthy scratches was not something Bylsma did with ease.
But it had to be even tougher for Bylsma to replace Fleury with Vokoun after Fleury played poorly in the Penguins' 6-4 loss in Game 4. You might think it was an easy call, but it's never easy to sit the team's franchise goaltender, who had made 79 consecutive playoff starts and put his name and Bylsma's on the Cup in 2009.
Vokoun responded by pitching the shutout in Game 5. His teammates played well around him. "We were sharper and more crisp coming out of our zone," captain Sidney Crosby said. "We were stronger in the battles at the other end."
That wasn't the case in Game 6. Overall, the Penguins played a poor game and were "fortunate" -- Bylsma's word -- to win. They were sloppy on defense. The Islanders used their speed and physicality on the forecheck to create turnovers, resulting in many of their silly-high 38 shots and creating, in Bylsma's words again, "some pretty scary moments" for Vokoun.
"I thought he played an outstanding game," Bylsma added. "He was strong again."
Bylsma has a lot of work to do to solve the puck-management and defensive problems that hurt the Penguins so often against the Islanders, who, in Penguins winger Chris Kunitz's summation, "created panic almost with our guys" for much of the series. They can't be so sloppy and undisciplined against the Senators if they want to advance to the Eastern Conference final and perhaps save their coach's job. Don't be fooled that the Penguins swept the Senators in the season, winning 2-1, 4-2 and 3-1. They took four of five games from the Islanders and you saw how hard that series was.
The tricky part for Bylsma against the Senators will be how he handles his goaltenders. He has offered no hints about his plans but clearly is happy with Vokoun. "We brought him here to play big games for us," Bylsma said before switching to him in Game 5.
The guess here is Bylsma will go with Vokoun again in Game 1 against the Senators and ride him until he loses or has a bad game, although I wouldn't have any problem if he went right back to Fleury. It has to be back to Fleury at some point. Vokoun was acquired in a trade with Washington before the season to rescue the Penguins in case Fleury had a bad game or was injured. But Fleury is the man who has to play the majority of games if the team is going to compete for the Cup. The franchise has bet millions that he is their guy.
Crosby, though careful to give Vokoun his due, made it clear he and his teammates still believe in Fleury and should be blamed for many of Fleury's problems against the Islanders. "We didn't do a very good job of helping Marc out. ... We still have a lot of confidence in him. He has a history of bouncing back after a tough game."
Fleury will get another chance. He must get another chance if the Penguins are going to win the Cup.
(Contact Ron Cook at email@example.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com.)