Zatkoff confident he can fill Vokoun's role for Penguins
October 7, 2013 8:00 AM
Jeff Zatkoff could be looking up at his first start this weekend when the Penguins have back-to-back games in Florida.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bringing in an experienced goaltender to back up Marc-Andre Fleury while Tomas Vokoun is out certainly was a viable option for the Penguins. At least a few are looking for work.
That might still be a path the team chooses, if things don't fall right.
It says something, though, that coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero are willing, even eager, to let rookie Jeff Zatkoff get his NHL initiation under this set of circumstances.
Vokoun will be out at least through the end of the calendar year, for as long as he is on blood-thinners. That's a standard medicinal follow-up to a blood clot issue. He had a procedure to dissolve a blood clot last month.
Zatkoff's next appearance in an NHL game will be his first. A good guess as to when is a game in the coming weekend, when the Penguins have their first set of back-to-back games, at Florida and Tampa Bay.
"Anytime you get that vote of confidence shown from the coach and from the GM, that's nice," he said. "I've still got to perform.
"I know what my role is here. I know what I've got to do. I'm confident that I can come in and play well when I need to play and take care of business."
Zatkoff, 26, signed with the organization as a free agent in July 2012. In 46 games with American Hockey League affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season, he went 26-20 with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
Bylsma, who used the word "spectacular" to describe Zatkoff's performance in training camp, got to see a lot of Zatkoff during the NHL lockout that pushed the start of last season to January.
"The thing I like about him is his battle in the net," Bylsma said Sunday after practice at Consol Energy Center. "He's strong, solid and compact for first shots, but his ability to battle on second chances -- and, in particular, east-west plays, to push across [the goal line] and be able to make that type of save -- has been really impressive.
"You see it in practice ... that explosive push and being able to make a save on what looks like a very, very good scoring chance."
Zatkoff was one of six goaltenders on the roster at the start of training camp. He was still there when that got pared to three, and moved up to the No. 2 spot after Vokoun's medical situation arose.
That means Zatkoff has spent several weeks facing NHL talent, including a few elite Penguins players.
"It's a great experience for me to skate with all those guys, some of the best in the league," he said. "To be able to see those shots on a daily basis only makes you better at reading releases."
For the past couple of weeks, Zatkoff has been one of just two goaltenders in practice, so he is facing shots in every drill, every situation.
"That's good not only from a conditioning standpoint, but it makes you a better goalie taking that caliber of shot every day," he said. "The longer you're up here, the more it's a norm. It becomes a normal shot, normal speed for you. I think I've been here long enough now that the game has kind of slowed down a little bit for me."
Zatkoff, a third-round draft pick by Los Angeles in 2006, played three years of college hockey at Miami of Ohio, spent a season in the ECHL and then the past four in the AHL.
The 6-foot-2, 179-pounder has discovered one virtue that is vital for a goalie wanting to advance in his career.
"I think you can look at our lineup and see that we have some great players," Zatkoff said. "All those guys, if you're not patient or you guess just a split-second too early, you're not stopping the puck. Patience is such a big thing as you move higher up."
The Penguins, too, seem willing to show some patience with their backup goalie spot by giving Zatkoff a shot, even if they are modifying the game plan a bit.
Bylsma had planned to have Fleury start about 60 percent of the games, which would be around 49 of the 82, with Vokoun starting the other 40 percent. Now, Fleury is expected to get a bigger share of the starts with Zatkoff as his backup.
There does not seem to be a goalie in the organization behind Zatkoff that the Penguins would be keen on bringing up anytime soon. Eric Hartzell, signed out of Quinnipiac last spring, is a promising prospect. He is with Wilkes-Barre. But he has not played a pro game at any level and was not the starter Saturday in Wilkes-Barre's season opener.
So barring a change of heart on the part of Penguins management about acquiring a goaltender outside the organization, it's Zatkoff's job to lose.
"I've seen we have back-to-backs coming up, but I'm not worried about that too much," Zatkoff said. "When my number's called to go in, especially that first game, it will be very exciting for me, but nothing's going to change. It's hockey. It's going to be the same routine I've always done."