NHL coaches often reward a goaltender coming off a shutout with a start in the next game. The Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury blanked Washington in a 4-0 win Wednesday.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Fleury will start tonight when the New York Islanders visit Consol Energy Center.
After all, backup goaltender Jeff Zatkoff is coming off a shutout, too. It’s just that his was nearly three weeks ago.
“He’s going to get another game coming up,” coach Dan Bylsma said Thursday, although he did not name Zatkoff as the starter for tonight. “We have a lot of games coming up.”
Tonight is the first of back-to-back games, with one Saturday at Montreal, and the first of three in four days. The Penguins play Monday at Boston. They then have games next week on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Whether it’s tonight or some other game soon, Zatkoff’s next start will be his fourth of the season and his NHL career. He had a forgettable debut, allowing six goals Oct. 11 in a loss at Florida. He waited two weeks for his next chance, giving up four goals in a loss at home to the Islanders.
Eight days after that, Zatkoff not only got his first win but it also was a shutout as he stopped all 19 shots at Columbus in a 3-0 victory.
Now it’s 20 days and counting since that game.
“It’s tougher to sit on a loss,” Zatkoff said. “I don’t think anyone wants to sit on a loss. It’s always nice when your last game was a win, especially when you don’t play that often.”
The 26-year-old rookie became the backup to Fleury after Tomas Vokoun had blood clot surgery in training camp. Vokoun, who could return later this season, was scheduled to start perhaps four of every 10 games. Zatkoff might get half that many, at least for now.
The Penguins are leaning heavily on their veteran No. 1 goalie, even though they would like to ensure that Fleury is fresh for the playoffs. Last weekend, Fleury started in back-to-back games, at least in part because he faced only 18 shots in the first, a 4-1 win against Nashville.
“Yes, the workload and how many shots he is getting is a factor, but right now the pace he’s on is 70, 70-plus games,” Bylsma said of Fleury. “That’s a big number to be at.
“Jeff’s going to get some games, but Marc is still going to carry the bulk of the load.”
Zatkoff understands that. He said there is no question he would rather be in the NHL playing a little than being the go-to goalie again back in the American Hockey League, where last season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton he set or tied career bests with 26 wins, five shutouts, a 1.93 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
“I know my role,” Zatkoff said. “That’s to be a backup, play when you’re called upon. [Fleury] has been playing great.
“I’m just making sure I stay sharp and ready.”
That includes some extra work with goaltending coach Mike Bales before practice some days.
‘We’re doing as many one-on-one drills as we can to work on the technical aspects that maybe you don’t get to work on in practice,” said Bales, who formerly was the goaltending development coach and worked some with Zatkoff at Wilkes-Barre.
Now, Zatkoff’s role is much different.
“That’s going to be one of the challenges for Jeff — not being the No. 1 guy,” Bales said. “He was used to that last year. He played a lot.
“It’s a little bit different pace here. That’s an adjustment.”
It’s one the Penguins are willing to be patient about. They also are looking more at his improvement in each of his three games this season rather than judging him on his debut.
“I think he’s proven he can go in there and be a solid backstop,” Bylsma said.
From his vantage point, Zatkoff has seen something that can put a smile on any goalie’s face.
While there was a lot of attention paid to a drop-off in scoring by the Penguins — just five goals over a recent stretch of a half-dozen games — Zatkoff noticed the way the skaters played defense.
The team has given up 17 goals and faced an average of 21.1 shots in nine games this month.
“We’ve been great,” Zatkoff said. “When we play our systems and get pucks deep and don’t give them easy offense with turnovers, teams get frustrated.
“You saw [Wednesday] night how we were able to frustrate [the Capitals] by the third period. They just couldn’t get anything. They were just dumping [the puck into the Penguins end] and we were [bringing it] out.”
Soon, perhaps tonight, Zatkoff could make those observations from the crease rather than the bench.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.