Even when his team was struggling to start the season, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes never lost confidence in his goaltending – and he was absolutely right not to.
That’s because the Penguins have rebounded from their 0-4 start to go on an impressive run – winning 11 of their last 14 games – and the play of goalie Jeff Zatkoff has been a critical part of that success.
Zatkoff has gone 7-1 in the month of November, posting a sparkling 0.99 goals-against average and .963 save percentage to go along with three shutouts. Overall, Zatkoff is 8-5 with a 1.62 GAA, .938 save percentage and three shutouts.
“It’s been nice,” Zatkoff said. “The coaches have shown a lot of confidence in me. They played me a few games in a row, and I think it really allows you to get into a rhythm and get more comfortable in the net when you’re playing on a nightly basis. Things just come more natural and smoother. We’ve been able to build up some momentum as a team and build on each win. We’ve won some big games against some good teams and hopefully we can keep it going.”
This is Zatkoff’s first season in the Penguins organization after signing a two-year contract in July. He had spent the previous four years in the Los Angeles Kings organization, who took him in the third round of the 2006 NHL Draft.
He did well during his time with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, especially last season when he earned an AHL All-Star Game berth after posting a 21-17-1 record, 2.49 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
But when Pittsburgh expressed interest in Zatkoff during the offseason, he decided that joining the Penguins would be a great opportunity for him to realize his goal of playing in the NHL. And so far, he’s made a good impression on the Penguins brass with his early season play.
That isn’t to say Zatkoff’s transition to his new team wasn’t without its struggles. He’s been learning to play within a new system, where he’s adjusted to facing a different volume of shots and seeing the game differently. Goaltending isn’t just about stopping the puck; it’s a position that requires a lot of communication when it comes to reading his teammates and making the right decisions with the puck.
“I’m playing with nine new defensemen that I’ve never played with before, so that’s always a challenge,” Zatkoff said. “Just getting on the same wavelength with playing the puck and getting comfortable with them. They’re getting comfortable with me at the same time. (We’re) learning to trust one another.”
Figuring out what the right decisions are within this new system and getting to know his defensemen’s tendencies has been a process, for sure. But the more starts Zatkoff gets, the more his confidence continues to build – and that familiarity is reflecting in his play.
“In game situations, he has a calmness about him in the net,” Hynes continued. “He competes very hard, but in rebound and traffic situations he really doesn't give a lot of second or third chances. There aren't a lot of scrums at the net. He makes the save and eats his rebound.”
Zatkoff’s talent is enough to instill confidence in his coach and teammates. But talk to him even for just a few minutes, and it becomes apparent he has the temperament that’s important for a goalie to have in order to succeed at this level.
“He has a great personality,” Hynes said. “You can tell that he loves the game. He loves being around the team. Whether it's practice or games, he's always upbeat and talking. He works really hard and competes really well.”
Hynes is right – Zatkoff is having a blast.
“I love it so far. I couldn’t be happier with my decision,” Zatkoff said of choosing Pittsburgh. “It’s a great organization. We’re treated first-class. The guys on the team are great and they’ve really welcomed me in. Just from the facilities to the way we’re playing in practice with everyone, it’s just been a great experience so far.”