37 shots faced, 35 shots denied.
18, 588 Pittsburgh gold t-shirt-wearing, towel-waving fans chanting his name in full throat.
A 5-2 victory in Game 1 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Welcome to the dance, Mr. Zatkoff, and well done.
He’s had his moment. Now it’s time to back it up and prove to the hockey world that it wasn’t a fluke.
After the Penguins’ 5-2 win to kick off this latest version of the NHL’s postseason, “Zack” as his teammates call him, was all smiles in the Penguins’ locker room. He knew Tuesday night after a text message from Marc-Andre Fleury, and a phone call from goaltending coach Mike Bales that he would be the starter.
One might think that a guy who had been relegated to third-string goalie, who hadn’t seen legit game action (prior to replacing Matt Murray this past Saturday in Philadelphia) since Feb. 20, would be nervous.
When asked how he slept Tuesday night after finding out his fate, he replied “Like a baby. All night.”
The Penguins will host the Rangers in Game 2 at Consol Energy Center Saturday afternoon at 3pm. Zatkoff figures to be the goalie of record once again, and the Rangers know it this time.
Sullivan’s Head Games
Before most games, hockey teams will typically hold a morning skate.
The first goalie off the ice in the morning skate, barring something unforeseen before that night’s game, is the one who will start between the pipes.
Fleury was the first goalie off the ice on Wednesday morning. All signs (other than a doctor’s clearance) pointed to him getting the nod, despite suffering a concussion roughly two weeks prior.
Penguins’ head coach Mike Sullivan was playing a bit of psychological warfare with Rangers’ head coach Alain Vigneault.
When pressed about the Pens’ goaltending situation prior to the game, Vigneault openly admitted that the Rangers were “preparing as if Fleury will be the starter.”
That’s how things go in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Coaches and players alike will search high and low to find the slightest of advantages. Even if they’re strictly mental.
But Zatkoff knew. Despite sleeping like a baby the night before, he admitted to not getting much in the way of an afternoon nap on Wednesday.
I’d fall asleep, but I’d get right back up. Every few minutes, it felt like.
– Jeff Zatkoff
A First Period Under Siege
The first period shots wound up 12-11 in favor of the Rangers, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story.
The Rangers had 10 shots in the first 15 minutes of the period, including a glorious chance by Kevin Hayes.
Zatkoff remained calm however, and simply punched it away with the blocker. He would maintain that same even keel throughout the game.
The Penguins did not have a good start to this game by anyone’s account. Many would think that for Zatkoff this would be a bad thing, but not in his opinion.
As a goalie, you want to feel the puck early on. That gets you into the game, it gets you comfortable. Zatkoff really couldn’t have asked for more.
After those first 15 minutes the Penguins seemed to settle down a bit and started playing more in the Rangers’ end of the ice.
From there it was pretty routine for Zatkoff.
Backing up His Strong Play
The Stanley Cup Playoffs, it can be argued, are all about adjustments.
By Vigneault’s own admission, the Rangers had to adjust from the first drop of the puck in this series with the Sullivan curveball of who would be The Penguins’ starting netminder.
Rest assured the Rangers, in these two days off between games, are preparing for both Zatkoff and Fleury.
In other words, no more surprises.
It’s hard to think that Zatkoff would need to be even better than he was on Wednesday night. Of the two goals that he surrendered, one came courtesy of Derek Stepan during a full two-minute Rangers’ 5-on-3 advantage.
That goal cut the Penguins’ lead in half at that point, 2-1.
The Pens’ Ian Cole had been assessed a two-minute penalty for interference and at the same time, Carl Hagelin took a 4-minute double-minor for high sticking. Stepan’s tally during the 5-on-3 left just over two minutes of penalty time which the Pens needed to kill.
Not only did the Pens maintain their lead during the extended Rangers’ advantage, they padded it back to a 2-goal cushion thanks to a Tom Kuhnhackl shorthanded marker.
Zatkoff did all he could on that penalty kill. With the exception of the Stepan goal, Zack was the Pens’ best penalty killer, which is what you want from your goalie.
So saying that Zatkoff will need to be even better come Saturday afternoon in Game 2 might be overstating things a bit. Zatkoff simply needs to play his game. If the Penguins in front of him play better, the result should be the same.
Jeff Zatkoff is a good goaltender. He has the talent to be able to play in this league, and win. Former Penguins’ goalie and general manager Eddie Johnston even told him as much last night:
You won that game… With your talent.
Many around the sport, most especially here in Pittsburgh, feared for the Penguins’ playoff chances if Zatkoff would be called into duty beyond Game 1. He made believers out of almost everyone.
He made believers out of the New York Rangers, too.
Now he just needs to prove everyone right.