Pressure mounts on backup goalie position

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Backup goalie is a difficult position to play, and often receives a brief audition. For the Pens Jeff Zatkoff, making his second career NHL start tonight against the Islanders, there's still more unknown than known about his NHL ability.

Nine games into the Pittsburgh Penguins 2013-14 season, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has started eight games. And while he’s played exceptionally well (7-1-0 record, 1.74 GAA and a .930 save percentage), at some point the team is going to have to think long-term.

Fleury’s workload will be increased off the initial plan coming into the season, due to the blood clot condition suffered by backup Tomas Vokoun. There’s no doubting that, but Penguins management and coaches must also manage Fleury with an eye towards the spring.

From 2009-10, to 2011-12, Fleury played in 67, 65 and 67 games. He did not have good playoffs in those years, and Vokoun was brought in to lighten the load and hopefully increase Fleury’s focus and leave him “more in the tank” for playoffs. This theory didn’t work, with Fleury playing in just 33 of the Pens 48 games last season and still falling flat on his face in the playoffs.

Due to the three week Olympic break in February, the NHL schedule is condensed this season and will definitely demand that the Penguins have a competent backup that they can trust to put out for games and get at least a decent performance from.

Studies show that goalies who tend to start so much of their teams games, don’t tend to go that far in the playoffs.

Which brings us to backup Jeff Zatkoff, who plays his second game tonight against the New York Islanders, coming in the Pens 10th game of the season. The first outing didn’t go so well for Zatkoff (or the team in front of him), with the Pens playing their worst game of the young season so far for the new goalie, who for his part surrendered six goals to a weak Florida team that has only topped three goals in a game once all year (4 on opening night), besides the six goal outburst against the Pens.

That in mind, the clock is ticking on Zatkoff. He gets to play tonight against the Islanders (who’ll be without the services of the suspended Michael Grabner) in Pittsburgh. The Pens didn’t throw Zatkoff into the fire of playing the game tomorrow night, which is also a Hockey Night In Canada audience that’s seen the Toronto Maple Leafs score 3.66 goals/game at home this season. Zatkoff draws, on paper, the easier of the matchups, since the Pens will be able to match lines with the last change, the game's in a rink Zatkoff has practiced in a lot and knows as well as any building in the NHL.

Now it’s his time to show that he belongs in the NHL. The last two homegrown goalies the Penguins have tried didn’t have long leashes for an NHL audition. John Curry started two games in December 2008 due to injury (going 1-1 but giving up 6 goals) in an injury cameo, before he got his third and final start as a Pittsburgh Penguin in January 2010 (the famous Alexandre Pechurskiy game). Curry got shelled giving up 5 goals in the first 24 minutes and hasn’t been seen in the NHL again.

Brad Thiessen didn’t have a much more illustrious NHL career, making four starts in a one month span in Feb/March 2012. Though he earned wins in each of his first three starts, Thiessen got shelled for eight goals against Ottawa and it was obvious by then he wasn’t an NHL caliber goalie the team could have faith in.

The situation is a little bit different for Zatkoff, since Curry and Thiessen only got chances on short-term injuries. Vokoun is out for at least two months, but with no end date in sight as he treats his blood clot condition with blood thinners on an open-ended timetable to make sure his long-term health is not compromised by a return to professional hockey. The Penguins need a backup now for a lot longer than in Curry or Thiessen’s times with the team.

But, that said, no backup goalie in the NHL gets a very long leash, even if they are brand new. Zatkoff’s lackluster performance in his first NHL game was reminiscent of Curry and Thiessen’s final game as Penguins, and Zatkoff isn’t going to receive an endless amount of chances to achieve different results. Due to the three week Olympic break in February, the NHL schedule is condensed this season and will definitely demand that the Penguins have a competent backup that they can trust to put out for games and get at least a decent performance from. They definitely had that in Vokoun and in the early days of Brent Johnson, but now it’s on Jeff Zatkoff to show that he is capable to fill the shoes of an NHL job for the long-term.

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