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Change in defensive philosophy forces Pens' goaltenders to adjust

| Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, 10:39 p.m.
The Flyers' Max Talbot (rear) is held back from the puck by Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who received an interference penalty on the play in the second period Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in Philadelphia.

Marc-Andre Fleury and Jeff Zatkoff are learning some new tricks in their down time.

Through the opening month of this NHL season, the Penguins' new neutral-zone defensive philosophy has left their goalies to deal with long stretches of nothingness.

“Sometimes it's just me back there for a while, so maybe I'll move around for no reason — just to do something,” Fleury said.

Zatkoff, a grizzled veteran of two NHL games, suggested an alternative option.

“He laughed, but I told Flower that I'll spray myself with the water bottle just to wake myself up,” Zatkoff said.

“Our guys are playing great defensively, and that's definitely a challenge for a goalie because you want, probably, 30 shots a night.”

The Penguins finished October third overall at 25.3 shots allowed per game. They were 16th last season at 29.2.

Shots are one thing.

Shot attempts are another, and there is a statistical trend that suggests the Penguins' reliance on a left-wing lock approach is working.

The Penguins have held an opponent to 60 or fewer attempted shots (shots + attempts blocked + missed shots) in 12 of 13 contests. Four times — or about 31 percent of their games — the Penguins have held opponents to 50 or fewer attempted shots.

That has translated directly into fewer scoring chances for opponents.

Limiting scoring chances — specifically by preventing opposing forwards from entering the offensive zone with speed — is the aim of the left-wing lock approach.

For a goalie, however, that can prove to be a boring way of life.

“That's probably not the word I'd go with for how we're playing,” Penguins defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. “‘Sound' is better. Or ‘hard.' Or ‘honest.'

“If I'm a goalie, I have no problem when things are easy for me.”

Easy is somewhat problematic for goalies, Fleury and Zatkoff said.

“I grew up watching those great Detroit teams, and (Red Wings goalie) Chris Osgood probably had to face only 20 shots a game,” Zatkoff said. “But he had to make all of those saves. There was no room for error.”

Fleury is off to the best overall statistical start of his career. He is 9-2-0 with a 1.81 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.

He has faced 273 shots, an average of 24.8 per game. Opponents have connected on just 48.1 percent of attempted shots (273 of 568) in his 11 appearances.

“It's the most defensive (stretch) since I've been here,” said Fleury, who assumed the No. 1 goalie role during the 2005-06 season.

It could have long-term benefits, he said.

Fleury said he has noticed “quicker recovery” for his body days after games “because sometimes I'm not doing much in games.”

“I'm not as tired in practices,” Fleury said.

That is a benefit given that he is in the first year of working with goalie coach Mike Bales.

Still, the life of a goalie on a defensively sound club is not without challenges — as Zatkoff witnessed from the bench at Carolina on Monday.

“I think that game is an example of why it can be tough,” Zatkoff said. “I'm watching Flower go 10 minutes without seeing a shot, then I see one coming at him from out of midair — and it seems like from out of nowhere. It's almost not fair, because you're not in any kind of rhythm and you've got to make this save or the game changes completely.

“It's a mental battle, but with the way our guys are playing defense it's something I think we're going to have to get used to.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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