The public face of the Manchester Monarchs' goaltending situation is a happy one, with second-year netminder Jeff Zatkoff
insisting that he gets along great with his rival for time, Jonathan Bernier
A peek behind the curtain, where the two really go at each other, blows that spin out of the water.
Zatkoff and Bernier live in the same apartment complex. Their interaction can quickly turn from chummy to competitive. Zatkoff switches on his NHL 10 video game and the sparks fly from there. Zatkoff won the first two games of the series, but at last check Bernier had drawn even.
"I think I caught him off-guard with my game off the bat," Zatkoff said. "But he responded."
In a sense, Zatkoff is trying to do the very same thing to Bernier in real life.
Bernier got off to a huge head start on his teammate last season. While Zatkoff spent the season in the ECHL, Bernier, the No. 11 overall pick by Los Angeles in the 2006 draft, went 23-24-4, .914, 2.40 for the Monarchs.
This season, Zatkoff has earned a spot in Manchester and is using his limited opportunities to nip at Bernier's skates. Zatkoff, 22, has started off 3-1, .978, 0.75. Those are exactly the type of numbers Zatkoff needs to keep posting to pull some of the attention away from the much more heralded Bernier, who is 6-2-0-1, .960, 1.42 this year.
"I knew they weren't going to hand me anything," Zatkoff said. "Once I knew Bernie was coming here, I knew the situation. He's earned the right to be the No. 1 guy starting the year. There's no point in giving yourself false hope and be let down, crushed. You have to have realistic expectations."
Zatkoff's first expectation when it came to Los Angeles was that he wouldn't be playing in that organization at all. Heading into the 2006 draft, he knew the Kings were interested in him. But when he sat down in front of the TV and saw Bernier's name called so soon, he figured he'd be breaking in somewhere else.
He figured wrong. Refreshing the draft tracker on his computer a few hours later, Zatkoff discovered the Kings had plucked him in Round 3.
"You usually assume most teams only take one goalie in the draft," Zatkoff said. "They were going young and starting over. It was a good opportunity for me. I think everyone wants to be a first-rounder. But there's plenty of guys who make the NHL who aren't first-rounders."
Zatkoff's more pressing call at the time was to continue to help the resurgence of Miami of Ohio's program. The draft preceded his sophomore year there, and he played two more seasons at the school before deciding to bolt to the pros early.
As justifiable as it was to start chasing that dream, Zatkoff's departure cost him a chance to join Miami for its ride to the NCAA title game in what would have been his senior season last year.
"It was the most difficult decision I've ever had to make," Zatkoff said. "When I looked at the big picture, I pretty much accomplished everything I wanted to in college hockey. I proved what I wanted to prove."
His career choice last year reset that bar. He got in 37 games with Ontario and among ECHL rookie goaltenders, his 17 wins were tied for seventh, his 2.97 goals-against-average was eighth and .915 save percentage was tied for fifth.
"The biggest learning experience for me last year was playing on a nightly basis, not just on weekends like in college," he said.
A close second in the life lesson department was to keep an eye on his vehicle. On the morning of April 1, Zatkoff awoke to find that his 2005 Escalade was missing from its parking space outside his apartment.
Since it was April Fool's Day, he assumed he was the victim of a prank. Zatkoff pressed all of his teammates, but none 'fessed up. Turns out the car was really stolen, and Zatkoff reported it to the police.
"Jonathan was the starter through last year. But by no means is he (Zatkoff) going to sit in the background and not play well. He's well on his way. It's a healthy battle and will only make Manchester better."
-- Bill Ranford
That was a bummer, for sure, but Zatkoff tends to keep his emotions turned down a couple notches. After a practice last week, Monarchs coach Mark Morris
played his team a short motivational video, a blend of famous sports movie scenes and speeches.
Zatkoff knew them all, as did the rest of his teammates. He enjoyed sharing the laughs with his buddies, but didn't think he needed any extra helium to inflate his early season high.
"Just getting the opportunity to play gets me pumped up," he said. "I like to stay low-key. I've found when you get too serious before a game, you stress yourself out."
That approach has been as important as a chest protector for the 6-foot-3, 170-pound Zatkoff this season. Morris said he laid out to him that Bernier will get most of the minutes and will typically be tabbed for the first action heading into each weekend.
"I think he realizes the situation," said Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford
. "Jonathan was the starter through last year. But by no means is he (Zatkoff) going to sit in the background and not play well. He's well on his way. It's a healthy battle and will only make Manchester better."
The upside for Zatkoff is that unlike a video game, he realizes that if he keeps ringing up the right types of numbers this competition can have more than one winner.
"There's an order to everything," he said. "My goal is to keep playing well, move up the depth chart until I get my opportunity. It's hard (being patient). But every organization is different. You have to look at it in the big picture. You keep playing well, you are going to get your opportunity."