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Starkey: Pens goalie situation intriguing

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stops a shot by Calgary's Mikael Backlund during the second period Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

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Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 10:33 p.m.
 

The Penguins' signing of backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff sparked a bit of speculation Saturday.

Zatkoff's NHL-only, two-year, $1.2 million deal got people to wondering: Does this mean the Penguins will go with a rookie behind Marc-Andre Fleury come playoff time? What if Fleury implodes again?

Does it mean the end of Tomas Vokoun, still recovering from a blood clot at home in Florida and hinting at retirement?

Would the Penguins consider signing a veteran before the playoffs if Vokoun cannot play?

A couple of conversations, including one with coach Dan Bylsma, led me to the following conclusions:

• The deal “has no significance” regarding Vokoun's situation, Bylsma said. Vokoun's status remains uncertain.

• The vote of confidence in Zatkoff would not prohibit the Penguins from seeking an experienced goalie should they feel the need.

• Zatkoff has established himself as no worse than a No. 3 goalie and a viable candidate to back up Fleury for the next few years.

Everybody in the organization is ready to ride with Fleury, who is off to a fabulous start and might be benefiting from the lack of a veteran pushing him for playing time the way Vokoun did last season.

I asked Fleury if he felt different without an experienced goalie behind him.

“Old?” he said, laughing. “Older, I guess.”

Believe this: Like any goalie, Fleury wants to play the vast majority of the games. It's easier to stay in rhythm. He was good when he needed to be Saturday, notching his NHL-leading 21st win by stopping 27 shots and protecting a late lead in a 4-3 victory over the Calgary Flames.

Fleury is 15-2 on home ice.

“He's run with the ball,” Bylsma said. “He's taken the net and done an unbelievable job for us.”

What's truly unbelievable is the way the Penguins have played in front of Fleury, employing Bylsma's new left-wing lock and playing a generally more responsible game. Fleury is forever a function of his teammates' performance, and this is shaping up as one of the better defensive teams in franchise history.

The Penguins entered Saturday's game with a 2.14 goals-against average, a number that would rank second in franchise history (behind only Kevin Constantine's trap-happy team of 1997-98) if it holds.

Fleury was clear and direct when asked if the difference in front of him is noticeable from recent years.

“Definitely,” he said. “I think we don't see as many quality scoring chances.”

Fleury entered the game with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage. Zatkoff, after his shaky NHL debut, is putting up even better numbers over his past six starts: 1.93 GAA, .930 save percentage.

“We've still got a ways to go,” Sidney Crosby said about whether this is the best defensive team he has been on. “But we're showing signs early on here of being really committed and disciplined in the way we play.”

The backup goalie situation will shake itself out over the next few months. In the meantime, the mood is light amid a seven-game winning streak — and the chatty Zatkoff has become a locker room favorite.

“The guy never shuts up, but in a good way,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “He's involved in the game even when he's not playing. He's talking to guys on the bench. He's very supportive.”

Is he a true No. 2? Would you trust him at playoff time if Fleury faltered?

Those are questions the Penguins don't have to answer today.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

 

 

 
 


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