Zatkoff emerges the unlikely hero after his patience pays off

Patric Hornqvist had his first playoff hat trick and the Pittsburgh Penguins pulled away from the New York Rangers 5-2 in Game 1.

PITTSBURGH – Jeff Zatkoff is nothing if not patient. My goodness did the Pittsburgh Penguins make him wait for a night like this.

Sent to the American Hockey League a year ago after spending a season as Marc-Andre Fleury’s backup. Mentioned prominently in trade rumours before the Feb. 29 deadline. Relegated to third-stringer while not even dressing for a single game in March.

Basically out of sight, out of mind, until making a surprise start on the opening night of the Stanley Cup playoffs and helping Pittsburgh to an emphatic 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers.

These are the sort of performances playoff lore is built on.

“It’s not a better feeling to see a guy like that go in and do the job that he did,” said teammate Trevor Daley.

There aren’t many players more popular inside the Penguins dressing room than the 28-year-old from Detroit. He’s usually the one keeping things light. Teammates are still laughing about the tape he made of Phil Kessel’s skirmishes with the Toronto media that was played on the team bus before Kessel’s return to the Air Canada Centre earlier this season.

His role was significantly elevated for Game 1 against the Rangers, helping his team withstand an early barrage after an uncertain start. Zatkoff already had eight saves to his credit when the game was five minutes old.

“(He) allowed us to get comfortable out there and get our game back,” said captain Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins enter this spring with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations and will be hoping to get Fleury back in the crease as soon as possible. He’d appeared in 98 of Pittsburgh’s 108 post-season games over the last decade and looked ready to start again on Wednesday after taking the morning skate in the home goal.

That turned out to be a little bit of subterfuge from head coach Mike Sullivan, who acknowledged afterwards that he didn’t want to tip-off the Rangers that he was about to start his No. 3 goalie.

“I think it’s a tough spot (for Zatkoff),” said Sullivan. “I can’t say enough about Jeff and how he’s handled the situation that he’s been in over the last couple months. I think to his credit he’s come to the rink every day and he’s just been a great pro. …

“It’s funny how this game works because you never know when an opportunity might present itself.”

It wound up turning into a battle of the backups when Henrik Lundqvist was forced from the game after taking a stick to the face late in the first period. He initially stayed in and allowed Patric Hornqvist’s opening goal 31 seconds after being sent kicking to the ice before Antti Raanta came out to start the second.

The Rangers are listing Lundqvist as “day-to-day,” which is basically standard operating procedure for any injured player at this time of year.

The same can be said of Fleury as he recovers from his second concussion of the season. He’s skated the last three days and could make a return in this series, which would relegate Zatkoff to the background once again.

He received a text late Tuesday night informing him about the Game 1 start – a first for him in the Stanley Cup playoffs – and was feeling the nerves pretty good right up to puck drop.

“I slept last night, but not too much for pre-game nap,” he said. “These 8 o’clock games are killing me.”

It has been a long, winding road to get to this point.

Zatkoff was a third-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings out of Miami University of Ohio in 2006, and signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent in 2012. He’s consistently been bumped to third on the organization’s depth chart – with the Penguins signing Tomas Vokoun in 2012, Thomas Greiss in 2014 and recalling top prospect Matt Murray from the AHL for good at the end of February.

That left Zatkoff scrambling to stay sharp while going 17 games without so much as dressing as the team’s backup.

“I had a lot of goalie sessions with (coach) Mike Bales,” he said. “A lot of early sessions. A lot of work after practice with the guys and guys always staying on. … You just never know when that opportunity’s going to come.

“And you’ve got to make sure you’re ready in case the team needs you.”

Needless to say, his 35 saves were pretty necessary to get the Penguins through a sloppy opener against the Rangers. It was pretty telling that his teammates awarded him their Viking-style MVP helmet post-game even after Hornqvist finished with a hat trick and an assist, and Crosby put up three points.

“It was a special performance for a special guy,” said Daley. “He’s been such a good teammate around the room for the guys; the guys love him. He’s a fan favourite in this room for sure.”

As the final minutes ticked down, he became a favourite inside Consol Energy Center too.

The fans chanted “Zat-koff! Zat-koff!” before the final buzzer and it might have been the only time all night he was rattled.

“That definitely sent chills through me a little bit,” said Zatkoff. “That’s exciting, it’s fun. That’s why you play the game.”
Well worth the wait.

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