Gene Collier: Zatkoff validates his status


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On some dark night when the Stars align fortuitously, they can shut down Sidney Crosby and the Penguins; this we know from Jan. 25 in Texas, where the Dallas Stars suffocated Dan Bylsma's team 3-nada.

But generally, the Stars at night aren't big and bright, and they are misaligned as often as not, so Tuesday night's quasi-redemptive Penguins victory at Dallas' expense wasn't exactly one for the ages.

It was more like one from the aged.

That was Sergei Gonchar, who'll be 40 within a month, trying to keep up with Brandon Sutter and then Crosby in the same early first-period sequence, pulling on every drop of his vast experience but still deploying all the mobility of the big clothes hamper in the hall.

Sutter went around him to the left, Crosby around him to the right, and the puck got buried behind star-crossed goalie Kari Lehtonen for a 1-0 Penguins lead five minutes in, and that seemed plenty fateful at the time.

The Penguins were 31-3-1 when scoring first. So, yeah, 32-3-1.

Gonchar teammate Ray Whitney was out there skating around while trying to hold off birthday number 42. Four days before Whitney turned 24, Valeri Nichushkin was born in Russia. Now barely old enough to drive, Nichushkin is playing right wing. Whitney's on the left.

Somewhere in the middle, between the mid-life crises and the unable-to-legally drink portions of the roster, the Stars possess some quantum of talent, most of it injured, but not enough that you'd expect to see them a month from now when the playoffs begin.

"Their goalie made some timely saves, but I thought we let him off the hook a little bit," said Stars coach Lindy Ruff, somehow able to suppress the perpetual grin that comes with no longer coaching the Buffalo Sabres. "We made a mistake and they put it in. We missed opportunities, and the game goes the other way."

What the Penguins can feel good about after a convincing win over an inferior opponent doesn't amount to much, but they got Crosby back on the scoresheet after a brief yet conspicuous absence, and they got standout performances from role players Lee Stempniak and Backup Zatkoff.

That's Zatkoff's name, right, Backup?

Oh sorry it's Jeff, but his validated status as Marc-Andre Fleury's effective pinch saver has taken on its own auditory life. Backup Zatkoff ran his record to 11-4-1 Tuesday night, representing a winning percentage even greater than the starter's.

As for Stempniak's name, I'm still not sure if in the Penguins dressing room he's Stempsy or Nyaker, but 5 will get you 10 it's one of those.

"We have such a dynamic offensive team, you know we're gonna get goals; we're gonna get chances, but at one point in the game when it's close, to have success you have to make a save at a key time," Zatkoff said. "Fortunately I was able to get a couple and the offense took over."

Though the Stars showed no particular interest in challenging Zatkoff early -- they went shotless for the first 71/2 minutes -- they got after the backup pretty good after Tyler Seguin's re-directed shot tied the score later in the first.

Even though Chris Kunitz, back after missing both losses to Philadelphia over the weekend because of an injury, made it 2-1 before the first period ended, Zatkoff came under fire for a long stretch in the second when the next goal was clearly going to be huge.

He swatted away Nichushkin's whistling wrister at 6:52 of the second, then gloved Cody Eakin's menacing shot less than a minute later. After Seguin did him the favor of misfiring on a two-on-one break, Stempniak made it 3-1 from some nifty passing by Crosby and Kunitz.

"We have to play playoff-style hockey right now," Zatkoff said. "This time of year mistakes are magnified; that's what makes this an awesome bounce-back game for our team. I've had an opportunity to play a few more games here in March with the schedule, and it allows you to get into a little bit of a rhythm, and to see the puck a little better.

"I'm just trying to work hard and get better every day."

There are only twenty-something days until this team finds itself lined up across the blue line from a playoff opponent, against whom Zatkoff might have to play the role Tomas Vokoun owned so effectively last spring. Nothing like that has been decided as Vokoun continues to work his way back from an illness, but Zatkoff has definitely shown he can establish a starter's rhythm on short notice. This was only his only his sixth start since New Year's Eve.

In other words, he's doing one of the most difficult jobs in sports splendidly.

"There's 30 of us [around the NHL] who have to do it; that's our job," he said. "You have to get comfortable with your systems and your defense, so I just think it puts an emphasis on practice. Those are our games. That's the way you treat it. If you're feeling good in practice, then the game's easy, because you're usually not going to see the situations and the scoring chances that you do in practice.

"That's something I really had to put a lot of emphasis on this year."

One day, whether or not the Stars align, Zatkoff will likely shed that Backup name for good.

Maybe they should call this guy J-Z.

I understand that can be quite marketable.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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