Goaltender Zatkoff's improved play earns Penguins' confidence

Penguins goaltender Jeff Zatkoff plays against the Islanders Friday, Oct. 25, 2013 at Consol Energy Center.
Penguins goaltender Jeff Zatkoff plays against the Islanders Friday, Oct. 25, 2013 at Consol Energy Center.
Photo by Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
| Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, 10:45 p.m.

Jeff Zatkoff is making a believer out of the Penguins.

Following three cameo appearances during the past seven weeks, Zatkoff is about to become busier as the Penguins enter one of their most grueling stretches of the regular season.

Coach Dan Bylsma is prepared to give Zatkoff more playing time.

“I think he's proven he can go in there and be a solid backstop,” Bylsma said. “He's going to get another game here coming up.”

Zatkoff figures to get one of the starts this weekend because the Penguins are playing back-to-back games. Given that Saturday's game is in Montreal and that Marc-Andre Fleury was not given the start in the Penguins' only appearance in his home province of Quebec last season, logic strongly points toward Zatkoff starting Friday at Consol Energy Center against the Islanders.

Zatkoff sounds ready.

“We haven't talked about who's playing when yet,” Zatkoff said. “But, you know, I'm not worried about it. I'm just going to work hard in practice and, when I get in there, I plan on giving the team a chance to win. That's my job.”

It's a job he has handled well in two of his three appearances.

Zatkoff's first NHL start was, by all accounts, not his best effort. The Penguins lost in Florida, 6-3 and Zatkoff never looked comfortable.

“That night obviously didn't go the way I wanted to go,” Zatkoff said. “I was just a little too nervous that night. It wasn't my best, and I know it.”

In his second NHL start, Zatkoff played a strong game – including a couple of spectacular saves — helping the Penguins to a 3-2 third-period advantage against the Islanders. Then, two defensive breakdowns resulted in two New York goals.

“He was good in that game,” Bylsma said.

And he was even better in his next start, earning his first career NHL win and first NHL shutout in a Nov. 2 victory in Columbus.

His confidence changed following that victory. So, too, has the confidence the coaching staff has in him.

“It's not unexpected to see a guy struggle in his first NHL game,” goaltender coach Mike Bales said. “We really expect Jeff to play well for us every time he's in the net. He just got unlucky that second game, and everyone saw what he did in his third time out.”

Zatkoff's primary challenge, now that he believes he belongs in the NHL, is dealing with rust. Having played in just three of the Penguins' first 22 games, Zatkoff is learning how to play effectively without playing often.

“Ask any goalie and he'll tell you it's easier to play every night,” said Zatkoff, who has almost exclusively been a starter throughout his college and minor-league career.

“The more you play, the slower the game gets.”

Things are slowing down for Zatkoff even if he is seeing most of his playing time in practice.

“This is all a challenge to Jeff because he's used to being the guy,” Bales said. “It's an adjustment, but I think he's doing well right now.”

The Penguins and their coaches seem to have far more confidence is Zatkoff now than they did in October.

With two back-to-back sequences approaching in the next two weekends, he's about to receive more playing time.

“With the number of games coming,” Bylsma said, “there's no question he's going to get an opportunity.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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