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Penguins to give Zatkoff first NHL start vs. Panthers

by Alain Poupart /

SUNRISE, Fla. -- More than seven years after being drafted by the Los Angeles Kings, goalie Jeff Zatkoff is set to make his NHL debut with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Zatkoff, 26, got the word Thursday night that he would be in net for the Penguins for their game against the Florida Panthers on Friday.

"Obviously excited, first one," Zatkoff said after the Penguins' morning skate. "Been waiting for this for a while, but once the game starts it's another game, another two points that we need to get in the standings."

Marc-Andre Fleury started the Penguins' first three games, all victories, but Pittsburgh faces a back-to-back set against the Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Coach Dan Bylsma had said Tuesday that Zatkoff would start one of the two games, and eventually picked the one against Florida.

Zatkoff admitted after the morning skate to being a little nervous, but said the nerves would disappear as game time approached.

"I think the time up to it is always the worst," Zatkoff said. "As you get into the game and right before it, you're just playing hockey like I've done 100 times. It's just sometimes that buildup for that first one, the wait is worse than playing."

Zatkoff, who played for the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre last season, became Fleury's backup after veteran Tomas Vokoun was sidelined because of a blood clot.

The 26-year-old Zatkoff, who was drafted in the third round (No. 74) by the Kings in 2006, appeared in two games in the preseason, going 1-0-1. He stopped 30 of 32 shots in a 3-2 shootout victory against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sept. 23.

"I think it's been a couple of weeks since I played my last one, so I'm definitely excited to get back in there and get into a game," Zatkoff said. "I like to stay calm and approach the game the same way I approach every practice, maybe take an extra five minutes beforehand just to really focus. Like I keep saying, I've played a bunch of games. This is obviously the NHL, but I'm confident that I can go out and play, and play well."

The Penguins have gotten stellar goaltending so far this season, with Fleury sporting a 1.00 goals-against average and a .963 save percentage.

Fleury said he was confident Zatkoff would do well in his first game.

"He's played the game for a long time," said Fleury, whose own NHL debut came almost 10 years ago to the day (Oct. 10, 2003) when he stopped 46 of 48 shots in a 2-2 tie against the Los Angeles Kings. "It's nothing new to him. He knows what to do.

"I'm excited for him. It's been a long time he's worked for this and now he gets to realize his dream of playing in the NHL. I'm not worried. I have no doubt that it's going to go well."

Zatkoff said his parents might be in attendance at BB&T Center on Friday night if they could find a reasonably priced flight from Michigan.

"If they're too unreasonable, they all have the Center Ice package, so I'm sure they'll just tune in and watch it on TV," Zatkoff said. "Obviously they're excited. I'm excited and just ready to get going."

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