MONTREAL – Earning shutouts against the Montreal Canadiens is starting to seem routine for the Washington Capitals. On Saturday, Tomas Vokoun became the third Caps goalie to blank the Canadiens in as many games as he stopped 30 shots in a 3-0 Washington win.
Michal Neuvirth blanked the Habs 3-0 on Jan. 18, while Braden Holtby earned a 2-0 win last March. Throw in Semyon Varlamov’s shutout over Montreal Dec. 28, 2010, and the Caps have kept the Canadiens scoreless in four of their last six meetings overall.
But despite the frequency in which the Caps have shut down Montreal’s offense, Saturday’s shutout was a first for Vokoun against the team that drafted him in 1994.
Coincidentally, it was also his 47th career shutout, which allowed him to pass Canadiens Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden for 26th place on the NHL’s all-time shutout list.
Vokoun was taken in the ninth round (226th overall) by Montreal in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft before going on to star with the Nashville Predators (1998-2007) and Florida Panthers (2007-11).
Given his success with both the Predators and Panthers, it’s easy to forget that the Czech goalie made his NHL debut with Montreal in 1997.
Fifteen years ago Monday, Feb. 6, 1997, Vokoun made an emergency start for the Canadiens in what quickly became a humbling experience. Philadelphia’s Mikael Renberg beat the 20-year-old Vokoun on the very first shot he faced in the NHL, and from there the Flyers rout was on.
Vokoun was lit up for four goals in the first period alone as the Flyers went on to beat the Canadiens 9-5.
“Obviously it didn’t go as planned, but I’m still here 15 years later,” Vokoun told WTOP last week. “It was a pretty tough experience, but on the other hand it was a big learning experience, too. It showed me that I needed to work harder on my game, on my [conditioning] and on my physical attributes. It was a good lesson — not just in hockey but in life.”
Vokoun lasted just 20 minutes in his first career NHL game before being replaced by fellow goaltending prospect Jose Theodore to start the second period.
“Obviously I wasn’t comfortable at all,” Vokoun said. “You picture playing your first game and having success and when you fail it’s tough to swallow, but in the long run I think it did me a lot of good.”
Vokoun wasn’t exactly put in an enviable position either for his first career NHL start. The Canadiens had won just once in their previous seven games as they prepared to visit the eventual Eastern Conference champion Flyers.
Philadelphia was led by its famous “Legion of Doom” line of Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Renberg — one of hockey’s best trios of the past 25 years.
Against Vokoun and Theodore that night, Lindros, LeClair and Renberg combined for six goals, 16 points, a plus-16 rating and 21 shots on goal.
“Philadelphia was a pretty good team at that time too, but it was an opportunity,” Vokoun said of his debut. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience but just like with everything, when time passes you kind of look back and say, ‘Well maybe that was the best thing that could have happened to me.'”
Vokoun’s first taste of the NHL was brief and a return to the big leagues wasn’t exactly imminent. He was eventually returned to the American Hockey League’s Fredericton Canadiens where he remained for the next year and a half.
With Jocelyn Thibault, Andy Moog and Theodore all ahead of Vokoun on the Canadiens’ organizational depth chart, it would have been easy for Vokoun to wonder if he’d ever get another shot in the NHL. But those doubts, he says, never entered his mind.
“I was pretty young back then and 20-year-olds don’t think in long-term plans, so that made it a little bit easier,” he said. “If it had happened to me when I was 30 years old, it would probably have been tougher.
“I was skilled enough to play — I just wasn’t prepared enough and that’s something you could always fix. I just had to work harder and wait and make sure if I had another chance that I’d be ready.”
That chance came in the summer of 1998, when Vokoun was left unprotected by Montreal before being selected by Nashville in the expansion draft.
It would take nearly two years from the time of his disastrous debut, but Vokoun was back in the NHL. He would continue to shuffle between the minors and the NHL for another few seasons, before emerging as a Nashville regular during the 2000-01 season.
By the time he would leave Tennessee in 2007, Vokoun had become (and still is) the team’s all-time wins leader with 149 victories.
He also would top 100 wins with Florida before signing with the Capitals last summer. And since the 2002-03 campaign, Vokoun and Roberto Luongo are the only two goalies to have won at least 20 games each season.
His 670 games also rank 25th all-time among goalies, and he begins the week just 17 wins shy of 300 for his career.