Penguins backups, scratches are staying prepared

Robert Bortuzzo finally made his way off the ice about 45 minutes after the formal portion of the Penguins’ morning skate at Nationwide Arena eight days ago had ended.

He sat down in his locker-room stall, sweating profusely after going through a demanding workout with a handful of other players scheduled to be healthy scratches for Game 4 of the Penguins’ opening-round playoff series against Columbus.

Bortuzzo knew by then that he wouldn’t be dressing against the Blue Jackets that evening. What he couldn’t know was when — or even if — he would be called upon to play again.

Could have been the next game. Could have been the next series. Could have been next season. The uncertainty, though, didn’t seem to faze him.

His focus, he said, was solely on being prepared to step in, if needed.

“There are a couple of us here who know anything could happen, that we could be in if there are injuries or whatnot,” he said. “We want to be ready.”

Turned out, Bortuzzo was. And didn’t have to wait long to prove it.

Bortuzzo was added to the lineup for Game 5, when it was determined defenseman Brooks Orpik would be unable to play because of an undisclosed injury, and remained there for the series-clincher Monday in Columbus.

He averaged 20 shifts and 13 minutes of ice time in his two appearances, and finished with a plus-minus rating of plus-1. By any measure, that was a pretty solid payback for the time and effort he had invested in keeping himself prepared to play.

“I didn’t think I was doing it for no reason,” Bortuzzo said after practice Wednesday at Consol Energy Center. “Everyone knows what this time of year brings. … I was thrown in there pretty quick and thought we were able to do some good things.”

Although Bortuzzo wasn’t a difference-maker against the Blue Jackets, neither was he a liability. Which, realistically, has to be the primary objective of any healthy player who is placed in suspended animation until being summoned back to work, usually on short notice.

“The pace in the playoffs is so fast, and, when you haven’t played in a few games, it’s important that you’re ready to get your feet moving and be able to play at that faster pace,” said winger Taylor Pyatt, who has yet to appear in these playoffs. “You just try to stay sharp, mentally and physically.”

Most of the healthy scratches spend game nights in the press box, but they’re not just spectators with a strong rooting interest.

“You obviously want to keep … your mind sharp, so we’re watching all of the games pretty [closely],” Bortuzzo said. “Even keeping up with some video and stuff that we do here. You just want to be as ready as possible.”

Unlike Bortuzzo and Pyatt, goalie Jeff Zatkoff dressed for every game in Round 1, although he has yet to face a playoff shot.

Because, as Marc-Andre Fleury’s backup, he must be prepared to enter the game with little or no warning — there’s the constant danger of an injury, and the possibility that coach Dan Bylsma will decide his team would be best served by replacing his starter — Zatkoff’s extra workouts have even more urgency than those of guys such as Bortuzzo, Pyatt and Deryk Engelland.

Although Zatkoff hasn’t been in a game since April 13 and might not get into another until training camp, it also is conceivable circumstances could force him into action just seconds into the Round 2 opener.

“It puts a little more emphasis on my pregame approach and my practices,” he said. “My practices are my games right now, so [the emphasis is on] good details, good practices.

“I’m battling on every puck like it’s a game situation, so that way, if I get into a game, hopefully I’ll be ready. Not need a few minutes to get into it.

“That’s how it is this time of year. There are 15 other [backup goalies] who are in the same spot as me. That’s our job. We need to make sure we’re ready in case we’re called upon.”

Nine backups had gotten work this spring going into three Games 7 Wednesday, but with Round 1 finally over, the number of other goalies who share Zatkoff’s niche has shrunk to seven.

They, like he — and every other player cast in a supporting role in these playoffs — can do little except to be as prepared as possible when they’re summoned.

“The games are the easy part,” Zatkoff said. “Where you get better, where you put your work in, is the practice. By the time you get to the game, your habits should just take care of the rest.”

Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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