Tomas Vokoun had been in this position too many times, watching the Stanley Cup playoffs from the comfort of his living room.
This time, his Florida Panthers had lost a tiebreaker for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference. Vokoun had been a rock at goaltender all season, but, once again, he would have no say in the NHL's heart-thumping postseason.
On the night of June 12, 2009, he sat down in his Parkland, Fla., home and took in Game 7 of the Cup final between the Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings. The Penguins, looking for their third Stanley Cup, led 2-1 late in the third period. As the clock fell under 10 seconds and the Red Wings mounted one final attack in the Pittsburgh zone, Vokoun's eyes -- along with the eyes of millions of hockey fans around the world -- were fixed on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Vokoun saw what they did: The catlike Fleury blocking a Henrik Zetterberg shot and releasing a rebound to his right, Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom surging to possess the puck at the left faceoff circle, Lidstrom seeing an opening and firing a shot toward it, Fleury desperately hurling his body toward the puck to complete the save of the playoffs with two seconds left, Fleury hoisting his arms triumphantly into the cool Joe Louis Arena air, the Penguins mobbing their goaltender in the crease, pushing him back into the boards.
In that moment, Fleury had lived up to the expectations set upon him when he was drafted by the Penguins No. 1 overall in 2003. It would have been easy to see Fleury's life as a fairy-tale -- the 24-year-old French-Canadian prince with the flowing black hair seizing what was supposed to be his all along.
Vokoun couldn't relate. An afterthought early in his career, his rise to starting goaltender in the NHL had been a lesson in patience. A predictable cultural transition for the native of what is now the Czech Republic preceded numerous physical and mental struggles that nobody could have foreseen. Still, he had proven his worth.