At Wednesday’s morning skate, Marc-Andre Fleury was the first goalie off the ice for the Penguins. Tristan Jarry, the 20-year-old called up from the AHL as a potential emergency backup for Jeff Zatkoff, was nowhere to be seen.
Although head coach Mike Sullivan called Fleury a game-time decision, the writing was on the wall. The Penguins’ No. 1 netminder must have remained symptom-free in his concussion recovery and was ready to face the New York Rangers.
About eight hours later, however, when the Penguins skated out for warmups, it was Zatkoff who led them onto the ice. A couple minutes went by with no other goalie in sight – and then Jarry appeared.
Zatkoff, who saw action for the first time since Feb. 20 in Saturday’s regular-season finale, and then only because No. 2 guy Matt Murray sustained an apparent concussion, was starting his first-ever playoff game.
No pressure. Just tending goal against the Penguins’ arch nemesis of the past three playoffs, with the aspirations of a team with Stanley Cup potential riding on his shoulders, at least for a night.
“When we got to the game here tonight at 6 o’clock, they told us and had the lineup up,” said winger Patric Hornqvist.
But Zatkoff’s start didn’t come as a surprise to him.
“I knew last night; Marc sent me a text,” Zatkoff said. “So it was nice to have a night to prepare. Slept a little bit – last night, not so much for pregame nap.”
The nerves building up to the game, though, disappeared once it was underway.
Zatkoff held strong through a lackluster first period for the Penguins, when they got away from the fast-paced, puck-possession game with which they’d found success through the second half of the season. At one point, midway through the opening frame, the Rangers were outshooting the Penguins 12-3.
“I don’t think we had the puck as much tonight as we’ve been accustomed to, especially early in the game,” Sullivan said. “The first part of the game, we weren’t playing with the same conviction. It took us 10 or 12 minutes of that first period to settle in.”
“I got some shots early on; they were throwing a lot at the net,” he said. “I think probably, when they found out I was playing, they knew I hadn’t seen a lot of hockey lately and wanted to get me into the game.”
But Zatkoff was up to the challenge, making a few tough saves early on with solid positioning and an aggressive approach that saw him come out to the edge of his crease to challenge shooters. He settled in and kept the Rangers off the board until the Penguins, late in the period, started to get back to their game.
“He was probably our best player,” said Hornqvist. “The first 10-15 minutes there, he made three or four really good saves and kept it 0-0. If they made it 1-0 there, it’s probably another game.”
Finally it was the Penguins who broke through, with just over a minute remaining in the first, on a goal from Hornqvist as New York’s Henrik Lundqvist struggled with the first shot following an accidental stick to the eye from teammate Marc Staal. The Rangers’ star netminder didn’t return after the first intermission, turning over the net to backup Antti Raanta.
“The fact we were able to score at the end of the first, I think that gave our team a lot of confidence, a lot of momentum,” Zatkoff said. “We didn’t feel like we had a great first. The second half of the first, we really started to get to our game – playing quick, playing north, going on the forecheck, throwing to the net and banging one in. And I thought we were able to build from there.”
Captain Sidney Crosby contributed the next goal on a breakaway with just over a minute remaining in the second. Then, after an inauspicious start to the third, where the Penguins were faced with killing off a two-minute, 5-on-3 Rangers power play followed by two minutes of 5-on-4, they let up their first goal of the game to forward Derek Stepan – then went the other way to score a shorthanded one of their own.
“On those penalty kills, when you’re in front of the net, it’s a jungle,” said defenseman Ben Lovejoy. “You’re doing anything you can to get a stick, a foot, a face on the puck at this time of year. Jeff was great on those first saves and we were doing our best to battle.”
The shorty came from Tom Kuhnhackl, a 24-year-old who was called up from the AHL earlier this season and is quickly establishing himself as an NHL mainstay.
“I thought that was huge as far as momentum for us,” Sullivan said.
Hornqvist added two more – one on the power-play and one into an empty net – to net his first playoff hat trick and break the game open. Stepan had added another midway through the final period but, after the first, the Rangers couldn’t weather the Penguins’ offensive storm as Pittsburgh took a 5-2 decision and the first game of this best-of-seven, first-round series.
“It was a good night for me,” said Hornqvist, who also sprung Crosby on his breakaway. “Our first period was not as good as we wanted, but we got that late goal, then I think we took over the game. We played the right way and came up with a big win.”
It was a great night for Zatkoff, who turned a skeptical, nervous fanbase into one enthusiastically chanting his name by the end of his 35-save performance.
“He’s been a great soldier for this team all year,” Sullivan said. “He’s really played in some big games at key times for us, and he’s given this team a chance to win. That’s exactly what he did tonight. Couldn’t be happier for him.”
“I’m really excited to be able to play this game,” Zatkoff said. “It’s one game, but we got the win. When the guys are scoring like that, if we score 4-5 goals a night, we’re going to get a lot of wins. It’s fun to see them play that well.
“The guys blocked a ton of shots, and I was able to make enough saves to get the win. It’s definitely exciting, it feels good to get that first one, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”