New goalie Greiss’ presence threatens Zatkoff as Penguins backup

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Jeff Zatkoff still talks about The Game.

A lot of athletes have a key moment they think about in capital letters, but Zatkoff’s comes with a twist.

It not only was the Penguins goaltender’s NHL debut, but he also flopped in it.

Pressed into duty as the team’s backup to Marc-Andre Fleury last season after a blood-clot issue felled Tomas Vokoun, Zatkoff started the fourth game of the season. Florida clobbered him, 6-3.

Without prodding, Zatkoff brought up The Game as he was recounting his rookie season Thursday and looking ahead to 2014-15 while making a guest appearance at a Penguins youth camp at the RMU Island Sports Center.

“I had played five years in the minors and I had waited so long, I think I just put so much into that game instead of just being natural, letting the game come to me,” Zatkoff said. “Probably just trying to do a little too much.

“Once I was able to get that out of the system, I think I was able to settle down and just play.”

Did he ever.

After falling to 0-2 in a 4-3 loss Oct. 25 against the New York Islanders, Zatkoff won seven starts in a row and finished the season 12-6-2 with a 2.61 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage.

The more he won, the less there were calls for the Penguins to bring in a veteran goaltender — even after it became clear that Vokoun would not play following a procedure in training camp to dissolve the blood clot and months of being treated with blood-thinners.

The Penguins rewarded Zatkoff with a two-year, $1.2 million, one-way contract extension that kicks in for the upcoming season.

But that was under former general manager Ray Shero. His replacement, Jim Rutherford, signed goaltender Thomas Greiss in free agency.

At 28, Greiss is only one year older than Zatkoff, but Greiss has played more than three times as many NHL games.

A year ago, Zatkoff arrived at Penguins training camp with a realistic goal of establishing himself as the solid third-string goalie in the organization but spent the season as the No. 2. Next month, he will enter training camp trying not to fall to No. 3.

Rutherford has said Zatkoff and Greiss will face off for the backup role.

“It’s a different situation, but it’s the same in a sense in that I’m still battling for a spot,” Zatkoff said.

“I signed my extension under Ray and with Dan [Bylsma, the former coach].

“When new management comes in, anything can happen. It’s still battling for that spot. Who they bring in is out of my control.”

The Penguins will have a new system under coach Mike Johnston, and it seems likely that the defensemen’s assignments in their own end could change. The defensive corps also will have a different look after Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen left — and Christian Ehrhoff arrived — in free agency.

Zatkoff will have to adjust accordingly, but said all he can do is “try to make a good impression with the coach and try to fit in with the guys in the locker room.”

He has the advantage of knowing and having worked with most of his teammates and knowing that he successfully got past his version of The Game.

“I was able to build relationships with my teammates and establish those bonds. It helps,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a new coach, new management. I don’t know Greiss personally, but I’ve played against him a few times and I’ve seen him play. He’s a good goalie.

“You wouldn’t think they’re going to carry three goalies. I’m confident in my ability. We’ll wait and see how everything shakes out.”

Shelly Anderson:, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.

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