Earlier this week, head coach Dan Bylsma said that Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff
would start one of the team’s back-to-back games this weekend in Florida – he just wasn’t ready to share which one that would be.
Turns out, it’s tonight.
Zatkoff will make his NHL debut against the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center in Pittsburgh’s first road game of the season, as the Penguins look to improve to a perfect 4-0 on the season.
The 26-year-old has been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. He didn’t get it in four seasons with the Los Angeles Kings organization behind Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier, and wasn’t sure if he would get it here ranked third on the depth chart behind Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun.
But with Vokoun out 3-6 months after undergoing surgery to dissolve a blood clot in September, Zatkoff moved up to assume the backup role behind Fleury and is finally getting his long-awaited chance. While he’s looking forward to it, he’s also trying to keep the situation in perspective.
“Obviously, I’m excited,” Zatkoff said. “First one, been waiting for this for a while. But I think once the game starts, it’s another game, another two points that we need to get in the standings.”
Zatkoff has been patient for years, but now that he’s just hours away from what he’s been working toward, he’s anxious to get started and get on the ice.
“I think the closer it gets, the better it will get,” Zatkoff said when asked if the nerves would worsen as the 7:30 p.m. puck drop approached. “I think the time up to it is always the worst, and then as you get into the game and right before it, then you’re just playing a hockey game like I’ve done a hundred times. It’s just that sometimes that buildup for that first one, the wait’s worse than playing.”
His last game action came on Sept. 23 in Pittsburgh’s preseason game against Chicago. Zatkoff played fearless yet composed through regulation, overtime and a shootout in an eventual 3-2 Penguins victory, with Bylsma calling him “strong, confident and aggressive.” He didn’t look rattled or out of place, and Zatkoff plans on bringing that same composure and belief in himself to the biggest game of his career to date.
“I like to stay calm and approach the game the same way I approach every practice,” he said. Maybe take an extra five minutes beforehand just to really focus. I’ve played a bunch of games. This is obviously at the NHL, but I’m confident in myself that I can go out, play and play well.”