The Pittsburgh Penguins faced tragedy before the 2013-14 season even began when veteran backup netminder Tomas Vokoun was rushed to the hospital due to an issue with blood clots. They were also left with a lingering sense of uncertainty, since franchise starter Marc-Andre Fleury had fallen out of favor with the fans after a second consecutive disappointing post-season performance that saw him lose his starting position to the aforementioned fan favorite Vokoun. There was talk all summer from fans who wanted to trade Fleury or those who wanted Vokoun to take the reins as the starter on day 1 of the regular season. And Fleury's pre-season performance didn't exactly instill fans with hope either, although his supporters were quick to point out that he normally struggles in the pre-season and then kicks it into high gear once the season begins.
With Vokoun on the shelf for months and possibly contemplating retirement, the Pens were set to start the season with Jeff Zatkoff backing up Fleury. Zatkoff had spent years as an AHL starter and had quite an impressive pedigree coming from Ron Hextall's goalie factory in Los Angeles, but stuck behind two excellent goaltenders he spent never made it up past the AHL Manchester Monarchs. So with Fleury's reputation and an unproven backup the start of the season didn't exactly instill most fans with confidence. There was a renewed call to make a trade, some wanting the Pens to replace Fleury with a new starting goaltender and other just wanting to add a veteran backup rather than relying on Zatkoff, one that could perhaps take over should Fleury falter again.
The team, or more specifically the fan base, was left with nothing but question marks. Question marks... that got me thinking about a popular video game from the 1980s. We have Mario Lemieux, out very own Super Mario, as well as his assortment of supporting staff that become playable characters later in the series. He is traveling forward and there are obstacles in the way, their are enemies and challenges that threaten to make him lose, and then those wonderful ? Blocks. Sometimes they give you money, and sometimes they give you something special.
If you are just a casual gamer or if it is your first time through you just hit the blocks haphazardly and take whatever you can find. However, if you are familiar with the game you know which items are where, what blocks contain something special and which ones can be avoided. Lemieux and his staff are quite well versed in their players, and where others saw merely question marks they saw what was held beneath. Lemiuex, through Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma, never lost faith in Fleury and still viewed him as the franchise starter while others were willing to throw him under the bus. The staff, particularly those from the developmental systems working in WBS, knew what Zatkoff was capable of. While many fans were willing to throw caution to the wind and dash through the level haphazardly taking whatever they could get, the Penguins staff and those of us that closely followed the AHL had a better idea that there was something special hidden beneath those question marks.
Marc-Andre Fleury - The Fire Flower
Mario has been at this for a while now, this isn't his first level of the game, he found the Super Mushroom back when the Penguins won the draft lottery, although of course there are occasional setbacks reverting them to small Mario. But when the rest of the team is clicking and they are in Super Mario mode the addition of the Fire Flower takes them to a whole new level. And when everything goes as it is supposed to, Fleury is on fire. Of course if the rest of the team is struggling, in the small Mario mode, picking up the Fire Flower isn't going to give them the power it should. And if he takes a big hit then the whole team falls back down to small Mario mode.
So far Fleury has played in 30 games this season, being pulled just once and going 20-8-1 with a league leading 20 Wins on the season as well as being tied for the league lead with 3 Shutouts. He currently has a 2.00 GAA, good for #6 in the NHL, and a .924 Save%, good for #10 in the NHL. He also happens to to a perfect 2 for 2 on Penalty Shots and a perfect 8 for 8 on shootouts, winning 2 of his matches that way.
What's more is that he gets even better when you look at situational stats. At 5-on-5 he has a 1.84 GAA and .928 Sv% while in 5-on-5 Close situations he has a 1.79 GAA and .931 Sv%. According to NHL.com he is also a .925 Sv% while on the PK, the highest of any goalie that has faced over 100 Power Play shots against and is a .952 Sv% while his team is on the PP, allowing just 1 shorthanded goal during the #6 in the league 21 shorthanded shots against. His 5-on-5 PDO of .998 also suggests that he isn't even playing to his peak performance yet.
According to Hockey Reference his Save% is 11% better than the league average and he has saved 7.43 Goals Above Average, the 8th best in the league. They have also given Fleury 5.6 Goalie Point Shares, which is the 6th best in the league and the 13th best overall Point Shares as well. Hockey Prospectus, which was last updated on December 1st and as such is missing Fleury's 7 most recent games, gives him 3.5 Goalie Goals vs Threshold, 1.1 Defensive Goals vs Threshold, and 5.6 overall Goals vs Threshold. Hockey Analysis, which was last updated on December 16th and as such is missing Fleury's 2 most recent games, gives him a 5-on-5 Zone Start Adjusted Hockey Analysis Rating Defense of 24.1, which is good for #8 amongst goalies that have played 500+ minutes, and at 5-on-5 Close ZS his HARD is 11.2.
Jeff Zatkoff - The Super Star
In the original Super Mario Bros. the 3rd power-up available was the Super Star, which made you invincible and allowed you to defeat any opponent. However, the star was sometimes hard to catch, much like how Zatkoff struggled in his first ever NHL appearance, so it takes time to build up and achieve that power. And the power of the Superis temporary, so like the eponymous item we expect Zatkoff to come crashing back down to reality at some point. But we are going to take advantage of it while it lasts and make the most of his hot streak.
In Zatkoff's first ever NHL appearance he struggled. It wasn't all on him, the team around him was quite awful and made too many mistakes, but he wasn't particularly impressive either. There were many people that were ready to give up on him right there, but fortunately the Pens staff doesn't make the same knee jerk reactions that the fans expect. His second appearance he looked much more comfortable in the net and was playing great, but the team fell apart and lost it late in the 3rd. His stats looked horrible at this point, and many were still quick to jump on the trading for a veteran backup bandwagon again, but his actual performance in that game led some of us, and the Pens coaching staff, to believe that he had the ability to succeed as long as the team played with a full 60 minute effort.
Now he has a few more games under his belt, having started in 7 and come in to relieve Fleury in another. He currently has a 6-2-0 record, including earning off a W when Fleury got pulled, and has 1 shutout. In fact he has not lost a game since the team fell apart in his second appearance. Overall this season he has a 2.46 GAA and .912 Sv% and was a perfect 2 for 2 to take home another W in the lone shootout he faced. If you take away his first ever NHL game, which is not overly representative of his true ability, he improves to a 1.93 GAA and a .930 Sv%. In fact if you take away the 2nd game, the one in which he was playing quite well until the team fell apart, and focus just on the 6 game win streak he improves to a 1.57 GAA and .944 Sv%.
In 5-on-5 situations, not counting the most recent victory as ExtraSkater is experiencing problems with that data still, he has a 2.49 GAA and .906 Sv%. This improves to a 2.04 GAA and .926 Sv% in 5-on-5 Close situations. His 5-on-5 PDO is ever so slightly high at 1.011, so like the Super Star's invincibility that fades over time we may very well see Zatkoff's current hot streak come to an end. Even so, he has put up some pretty impressive numbers for a rookie backup, so I think we can safely move forward with our current duo without needing to search for a veteran goaltender via trade or free agency.
Hockey Reference lists his overall performance as a Save% 3% lower than the league average and he has saved .50 goals less than league average. They also gave him a 1.3 GPS. Hockey Prospectus, which is missing Zatkoff's two most recent performances, gives him a -1.4 GGvT, a .1 DGvT, and a -.6 overall GvT. Hockey Analysis, which doesn't include the most recent game, gives him a 5-on-5 ZS HARD of 6.7 and a 5-on-5 Close ZS HARD of 22.2.
The Rest of the Bunch
The first Super Mario Bros. game only featured 3 possible power-ups, but later in the series they added additional items: the Power Leaf which turned Marion into racoon mode, the Frog Suit, Tanooki Suit, and Hammer Suit which gave him other abilities, and the Cape Feather which allowed him to glide. And likewise our Super Mario has some future question marks in the system that could wind up being important items to the lineup in years to come.
Eric Hartzell played 5 games with the ECHL Wheeling Nailers, posting a 2-2-0-1 record with a 2.58 GAA and .922 Sv% including 1 shutout. So far he has also played 5 games with the AHL WBS Baby Penguins, posting a 4-1-0 record with a 2.00 GAA and .923 Sv% including 2 shutouts. The only issue I have is that he is wildly inconsistent, in his 10 games between the ECHL and AHL from low to high he posted a .828, .833, .870, .879, .935, .939, .941, and 3 shutouts. He could be special, he could be a bust or peak at the AHL level, but he has a lot of work to do.
Tristan Jarry has played 31 games with the WHL Edmonton Oil and posted a 22-8-0-1 record with a 2.11 GAA and .920 Sv% including 4 shutouts. He struggled early in the season with a 2-2-0 record, 4.10 GAA, and .856 Sv% in September. But he was quite excellent in October with a 6-4-0-1 record, 1.80 GAA, .930 Sv%, and 1 shutout and then again in November with a 7-1-0 record, 1.25 GAA, .950 Sv%, and 2 shutouts. Although so far he has been pretty average in December with a 7-1-0 record, 2.48 GAA, .912 Sv%, and 1 shutout.
Matthew Murray has played 28 games with the OHL Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and posted a 2.43 GAA and .925 Sv% including 4 shutouts. He has remained pretty consistent throughout the season, although he has seen a slight decline since a hot performance in October. He went 2-0-1 with a 2.27 GAA and .922 Sv% in September and then imrpoved to a 6-1-0-1 record with a 1.86 GAA and .938 Sv% inclduing 2 shutouts in October. Since then he has declined to a 7-3-0-1 record with a 2.58 GAA and .921 Sv% with 1 shutout in November and then a 3-2-1-0 record with a 2.99 GAA and .918 Sv% with 1 shutout in December.
Lastly we have Sean Maguire who has played just 5 games with the NCAA Boston University Terriers, posting a 1-4-0 record with a 2.49 GAA and .929 Sv%. He had been splitting starts, but has not played since the middle of November and didn't even dress in their most recent game.
All in all it appears that not only are the Penguins looking like they are going to be fine with the current goaltending duo this season but that they are also pretty well set going into the future. Anything can happen come playoff time, we will need to wait and see, but it appears as if we have all the tools necessary to succeed. We just have to hope that we don't get to the end of the level and get another one of those messages, "Thank you Mario! But our Stanley Cup is in another season!"