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Analysis: Zatkoff Plays the Unlikely Hero

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Henrik Lundqvist may have started in goal for the New York Rangers, but it was the Penguins’ Jeff Zatkoff that stole the throne.

Spring is coming.

Zatkoff, who hadn’t started for the Pens since Feb. 20 and had been acting as the team’s No. 3 netminder on the depth chart, became Pittsburgh’s Game 1 hero.

Even if, as the late David Bowie would say, just for one day. 

Zatkoff made 35 saves for the Pens as they topped the NY Rangers, 5-2, to take an early 1-0 series lead in the First Round matchup at CONSOL Energy Center on Wednesday night.

“Guys blocked a ton of shots. I was able to make enough saves to get the win,” Zatkoff said. “It was exciting. It feels good to get that first one, but there’s still a lot of work left to do.”

If Zatkoff had any rust on his pipes entering the contest, it was quickly sanded down as he faced 12 shots in the opening 10 minutes of the game, several of the high-quality variety.

JT Miller from above the circles. Save.

Kevin Hayes all alone in the slot. Save.

Jesper Fast walking in alone at the side of the crease. If you guessed save, you guessed correctly.

Are you noticing a trend?

“I got some shots early on. They were throwing a lot at the net,” Zatkoff said. “When they found out I was playing they knew I hadn’t seen a lot of hockey lately. They probably wanted to get me into the game. Fortunately I was able to settle in a little bit.”

Zatkoff received a text last night from Marc-Andre Fleury, who missed the final five regular-season games with a concussion and was a game-time decision to start in tonight’s game, and a phone call from the team’s goalie coach Mike Bales.

Both informed Zatkoff that he would be the starter for Game 1.

“It was nice to have a night to prepare,” Zatkoff said. “I slept last night. Not so much for pregame nap. These 8 o’clock games are killing me.

“It was more nerves building up to the game. Once the game starts, it’s like any other game. I’m really excited to have been able to play this game.”

It’s been an up-and-down season for Zatkoff, who began the year as Fleury’s backup. But late in the season, the team recalled Matt Murray from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to handle the backup duties.

Zatkoff, the consummate pro, handled the arrangement with aplomb and professionalism. He helped mentor the rookie Murray and was supportive of his new role to help the team.

But the late season concussion to Fleury and an upper-body injury to Murray suddenly casted Zatkoff back into the spotlight.

And just like Kygo, he stole the show.

“I thought ‘Zat’ did a terrific job,” Sullivan said. “I think he’s been a great soldier for this team all year. He’s really played in some big games at key times for us and he’s given this team a chance to win. That’s exactly what he did tonight. Couldn’t be happier for him.”

“We’re all so happy for him,” center Nick Bonino said. “He battles every day. When we had Murray up he didn’t complain. He did his job. He came in and made 35 saves in the first game of the playoffs. Hats off to him.”

This week leading up to the game, Fleury practiced on Monday and Tuesday, took part in Wednesday’s morning skate and was even the first goaltender to leave the ice at the morning skate – typically a telltale of that evening’s starter.

But as the Pens took the ice for warmups, it was No. 37 that led the team onto the ice.

“Up until the end we weren’t really sure (who would start),” Zatkoff said. “It’s the playoffs. Everything is day-to-day. We take it one day at a time. We’re happy to get this one tonight. We’ll enjoy it, but we’ll get back to work tomorrow.”

A half hour later, Zatkoff would lead the Pens onto the ice once again. And had the game of his life.

After the final whistle, Zatkoff did one final spin on the ice as the game’s No. 2 star. The grateful crowd showed their appreciation and chanted his name.

“The best,” Ben Lovejoy said of that moment before stopping, shaking his head and smiling. “I was proud of the crowd when that happened.”

“(Zatkoff) is one of those glue guys in the room that you always want around,” Bonino said. “You want him on the road and in the dressing room, out at dinner. He’s a great guy and great goalie, too. It’s great that the hockey world saw that tonight.”

When the Pens gathered to take their team picture two weeks ago, Zatkoff was wearing the official team jersey. He jokingly commented, “I forgot what it’s like to wear this.”

I’m sure he remembers now.

If just for one day.

“Going from not playing to Game 1 starter, it’s funny how things come around,” Zatkoff said. “It just goes to show that you have to stay with it, continue working hard because you never know when you’re going to get that opportunity.

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