Even if he never plays again, there may not be a better feel-good story in these playoffs than Jeff Zatkoff, a third-string goalie thrust into action by injury, who responded with a confident, capable start that, backed by a Patric Hornqvist hat trick, gave the Penguins about as strong a 1-0 series lead as they could have hoped for.
Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray are out with concussions. (Despite all the positive reports from practices, Fleury is not in good shape. Fleury texted Zatkoff 24 hours before the game to let him know he wouldn’t be able to play. The Penguins’ smokescreen worked, though: Eric Staal admitted the Rangers expected and prepared to face Fleury.)
Enter Jeff Zatkoff, whose name sounds like he was born to be a third-string goalie in Pittsburgh. Zatkoff’s no kid; he’ll turn 29 in June, and he’s a career AHLer with 29 NHL starts to his name before last night. He certainly did not expect to be a playoff starter.
“I knew [Tuesday] night; I got a text from [Fleury],” emergency starter Jeff Zatkoff said after a 5-2 Penguins victory that matched their win total of the 2015 playoffs. “I knew I’d be getting the call, so it was nice to have a night to prepare. I slept last night, but not so much in the pregame nap.”
Zatkoff was good, genuinely good in a matchup where he projected to be Pittsburgh’s only minus. The Penguins are red-hot and are younger and faster and better on both offense and defense than the Rangers, especially with Ryan McDonagh out. But Zatkoff’s unexpected start gave the goaltending nod firmly to the Rangers—or at least it seemed at the time.
He looked a little nervous early on, as the Rangers logically put the puck on net whenever they could, coming way out of his crease to deny Kevin Hayes:
He looked like he had settled down some by the second, when, even screened, he got across the goalmouth to cut off Mats Zuccarello:
By the end of the game the yellow-clad crowd was chanting his name.
“That sent chills through me a little bit,” Zatkoff said. “It’s a special moment. It’s one I’ll always remember.”
But one game is just one game, and with Fleury’s status still up in the air, a Zatkoff-Henrik Lundqvist matchup would still give the Rangers more than a fighting chance. Funny thing, that.
With under a minute left in the first period, Lundqvist went down with a freak injury when Marc Staal’s stick blade went through the bars of his goalie mask and caught him in the right eye.
(Lundqvist, like most pro goaltenders, wears a cat’s-eye mask instead of a full grid, preferring it for visibility. For safety reasons, the cat’s-eye is illegal in junior hockey.)
Lundqvist’s status going forward is unknown, but it’s not promising: the Rangers today called up goalie Magnus Hellberg from Hartford.
A day ago, this series projected to be Fleury vs. Lundqvist, and the Penguins were the clear favorite. For almost one full period, it looked like Zatkoff vs. Lundqvist, and it felt like a crapshoot. Now it’s Zatkoff and Antti Raanta, and while one game is still just one game, it no longer feels like a close-run thing. Because Jeff Zatkoff can win playoff games.