Coming off the shakiest postseason of his NHL career, Marc-Andre Fleury received votes of confidence from management that he would, indeed, be returning as the Penguins starting netminder this season. Combined with veteran backup Tomas Vokoun, who carried the club to the Eastern Conference Finals after Fleury struggled, head coach Dan Bylsma felt he had “the best tandem in the league” going into this season.
Saturday, however, that tandem unexpectedly became a solo act when Vokoun was taken to the emergency room after experiencing pain and noticing swelling in his thigh at practice. While the Penguins hosted the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday afternoon, Vokoun was undergoing a procedure to dissolve a blood clot in his pelvis and will be sidelined indefinitely.
The 37-year-old Czech native also missed a portion of the 2005-06 season with thrombophlebitis of the pelvis while with the Nashville Predators.
“The good news [is that] everything was caught early for Tomas,” said GM Ray Shero. “Everything went well, but indefinitely is indefinitely, so we will have to wait and see. As we move along here we will have to make some determinations; it’s a little too early to tell.”
For now, however, the load will be Fleury’s to carry. The 28-year-old hasn’t gotten off to the start he or the team hoped for so far this preseason – “He’s been OK; a work in progress, I think,” Shero said. “But, certainly, if Tomas is going to be out for a little while, it’s going to be a situation where Marc is going to have to step up.”
Fleury said he’s ready to do just that.
“I think [Bylsma] knows where I’m standing; I think he knows I like to play, and I’m in good shape,” Fleury said. “If they [call on] me for more, I’ll be ready. I like to be out there on the ice. I’m still having a lot of fun playing the game.”
After his disappointing postseason, Fleury worked this summer not only on improving the technical aspects of his game, but on adjusting his approach with the assistance of a sports psychologist.
“Last [regular] season was good,” Fleury said. “There were a couple rough games in the playoffs, but I’m not going to stop playing hockey because of that. You learn from it, and I’m just looking forward to getting going again.
“There’s always stuff to improve on, and I’ve been skating since August, working on little things and just trying to bring that into my game,” he said, adding that working with the sports psychologist was “good; just a different tool to use. I don’t think he’s going to stop the pucks for me. I still have to do that.”
Unless the team makes a move to acquire an established backup – a strong possibility if Vokoun looks to be out for an extended period – Fleury’s No. 2 will be 26-year-old Jeff Zatkoff, who has yet to play an NHL contest.
“That’s really unfortunate what happened to Vokie; you don’t ever want to see that,” Zatkoff said. “But, at the same time, I’m ready. This is an opportunity I’ve been waiting for [and] I feel I’m ready for. I’ve had five years pro now; I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. So, if I get the opportunity, I’ll definitely be excited to get in there.
“I wanted to come in [to camp] and try to turn heads, try to stick around as long as I can. I still want to leave a good impression; the same thing goes.”
Zatkoff has hit the 20-win mark in three of his four AHL campaigns and was voted team MVP last season, his first with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, going 26-20 with a 1.93 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and five shutouts. He cited that pro experience – which also includes a year in the ECHL after playing for Miami University in Ohio – as helping to prepare him for an opportunity at the NHL level.
“I’ve really been able to get an understanding of the game, read the game,” he said. “Obviously everything happens a little quicker here, a little better shooters, but technically I feel like I’m sound and I’ll be able to read it out there and keep things simple.”
Zatkoff will likely get an opportunity to play in one of the team’s final two preseason games, Monday versus Chicago or Wednesday at Detroit. “I think the more ice time you get, the more comfortable you feel,” he said. “If I get in there and get a game, I think that would make the transition that much easier if there was an opportunity in the regular season.”
Fleury hopes to get the entirety of the other game – “I think another full game would be great. Get into it a little more, get the length of the game,” he said. And, after that, he’ll hope for the opportunity to prove he’s moved on from last spring and is ready to reclaim the form that led the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup Finals just a few years ago.
“I’ll come in, I’ll try my best, I’ll work hard,” he said. “I love to play, I love the game, and I hope I can be in there and give us the chance to win some games.”