Top Shelf: Vokoun comes through in a pinch

He probably would never admit it, but Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero had to know this day would come.

Sooner or later, his team would need a better option in net than Marc-Andre Fleury.

That's why last summer, after years of using low-priced journeymen to back up Fleury, Shero finally signed a No. 2 with a wealth of starting experience. The Penguins bucked up $4 million over two years to acquire the services of Tomas Vokoun, who became an insurance policy for when, not if, Fleury stumbled.

Sure enough, after an ineffective performance from Fleury at the start of Pittsburgh's first-round series against the New York Islanders, Vokoun was called upon to steady the ship.

With the best-of-seven series tied at two games apiece, the Eastern Conference's top seed tabbed Vokoun to start Game 5 and the results were even better than expected. The 36-year-old Czech turned aside all 31 shots in Thursday's 4-0 win, moving Pittsburgh one victory away from ending an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series that's been more competitive than most people would've guessed.

Considering the way Fleury floundered in front of his net for the first four games of this series, it's almost a lock Vokoun will be the starter when the Pens try to eliminate the upstart Islanders in Saturday's Game 6 on the road.

Still, Vokoun's clutch performance in Game 5 was anything but a certainty. Although a veteran of 700 regular-season NHL contests, his start in Game 5 in Pittsburgh was just his 12th appearance in the playoffs and the first since spring 2007, when Vokoun was the No. 1 option in net for Nashville.

He even copped to having a case of the butterflies heading into the big start.

"I was a little bit nervous, to be honest, the whole day," Vokoun said after the win. "I think you wouldn't be human if you weren't."

Vokoun's strong performance in a pinch came at just the right time for Pittsburgh, but the Pens' need for another veteran net presence like his was a long time in the making.

The realization that Pittsburgh required a better backup only came after Fleury already proved he could reach the top of the NHL's mountain. The last several years have seen Fleury's reputation go from proven winner to somebody who can't be counted on in big spots.

Fleury was superb in helping Pittsburgh get to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008, when it lost to Detroit, and he was a solid backstop the following spring when the Pens exacted revenge on the Red Wings to win the franchise's first championship since the halcyon days of Mario Lemieux.

In the afterglow of that impressive two-year run, it appeared Fleury was an invaluable piece to the future success of the Penguins. Not as important as Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but not too far behind, either.

However, Fleury's playoff results following the 2009 championship have been nothing short of alarming, causing a necessary shift in how Pittsburgh thinks about a player once considered a franchise goaltender.

In his first three postseasons, a run that culminated with the Stanley Cup crown, Fleury was 31-18 with a 2.45 goals against average and .915 save percentage. In four playoff appearance since then, he is just 14-16 with a 3.15 GAA and .881 save percentage. Fleury's GAA jumps up to 3.46 if you count only his last three spring performances.

A perennial pre-season favorite to win it all, Pittsburgh managed to make it to the second round in 2010 but suffered first-round exits in each of the past two postseasons. The recent playoff struggles combined with Fleury's start to the 2013 postseason was enough for head coach Dan Bylsma to finally utilize the Plan B put in place when Shero signed Vokoun.

However, while the switch to Vokoun was imminent, it's not necessarily permanent. In fact, it wouldn't be shocking to see Pittsburgh go back to Fleury in a Game 7 should Vokoun and the Pens fall on Saturday.

And even if Vokoun posts another shutout to close the series in Game 6, Bylsma may opt to give Fleury another shot to start at the beginning of the second round.

After all, the switch to Vokoun is not about giving up on Fleury, it's about realizing from his recent playoff runs that he might need help. In previous years, there was little faith in the second option, but that all changed with the addition of Vokoun.

Shero received tons of deserved praise for adding veteran skaters like Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray at this year's trade deadline, but his move to get Vokoun in the offseason came and went with little fanfare.

However, if Vokoun's first playoff start for the Pens is an indication of things to come, Shero's decision to bolster the net situation could become the stuff of legend.