- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - It would have been easy for Jeff Zatkoff to go through the motions. Nobody would have blamed him really.

Bumped out of the Pittsburgh Penguins backup goaltender spot by rookie Matt Murray over the winter, Zatkoff spent the last six weeks of the regular season a healthy scratch, arguably the two most dreaded words in hockey.

It’s not in Zatkoff’s easygoing nature to complain. So he buried himself in his work, spending copious amounts of time with goaltending coach Mike Bales and trying to stay positive while serving as one of the team’s resident jokesters.

“I like to add that lightheartedness,” Zatkoff said. “I wouldn’t say it affected my game.”

Not in the slightest. When injuries to Marc-Andre Fleury and Murray forced the Penguins to go with their little-used third option, Zatkoff responded with the finest moment of his brief career, turning aside 35 shots in a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers on Wednesday night that gave Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

The murmur that greeted his arrival on the ice in place of Fleury before the opening faceoff morphed into chants of his name in the final minutes. Surreal territory for a 28-year-old rendered an afterthought during the Penguins’ blistering run to end the regular season.

“It definitely sent chills through me a little bit,” Zatkoff said. “It’s exciting. That’s why you play the game. It’s fun getting the job done at home in front of your fans. It’s a special moment, one I’ll remember for sure.”

One that resonated with the man he stood in for. Fleury, still recovering from a concussion suffered on March 31, watched Zatkoff’s performance from the rafters, marveling at his teammate’s resiliency.

“That was awesome, very happy for him,” Fleury said on Thursday. “He’s such a great teammate. Has been all year. Been put in tough situations. I love the way he responded.”

Good thing, because there’s a chance Zatkoff may be called on again in Game 2 on Saturday. Fleury practiced for the third time this week on Thursday but remains vague about his availability for the weekend as he deals with his second concussion this season.

“Still a work in progress I think,” Fleury said. “I think it’s moving along. It’s getting better so hopefully it’s good enough for Saturday.”

It appeared Fleury would be ready for Game 1. He participated in the morning skate Wednesday and was the first goalie off the ice, a symbolic move that typically tips a team’s hand about which way it is going to go in net. Yet when the Penguins came out for pregame warm-ups, it was Zatkoff’s No. 37 leading the way while Fleury sat in the press box in a blue suit.

Coach Mike Sullivan hardly apologized for a little bit of gamesmanship. Zatkoff was given a full 24 hours’ notice he was getting the nod after receiving a text from Fleury and a phone call from Bales. It made for an unusual gameday, which his regular scheduled nap interrupted by butterflies.

Not that he was complaining. Besides, the jitters vanished quickly. Once the puck dropped it was in some ways just another game, though one in which the Rangers did their best to shake Zatkoff’s confidence early. New York sent shots from all angles in the opening minutes looking for the kind of holes that popped up with alarming frequency during a regular season in which Zatkoff went 4-7-1 with a 2.79 goals against average, pedestrian numbers these days.

The initial deluge settled Zatkoff in and eventually the guys in front of him picked things up. The Penguins blocked 22 shots before they even reached Zatkoff and he made up for in urgency what he lacked in technical precision.

Patric Hornqvist, whose three goals led the way, called Zatkoff the best player on the ice. Sidney Crosby, whose breakaway goal late in the second provided the Penguins with the breathing room they needed, praised Zatkoff’s maturity.

“It’s not an easy situation to go in to,” Crosby said.

Funny, Zatkoff made it look like no big deal while becoming the first Pittsburgh goaltender to win his postseason debut since Frank Pietrangelo in 1991. That spring ended with the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Zatkoff and the Penguins aren’t quite ready to go there, but it was a promising beginning.

“It’s one game,” Zatkoff said. “Come Game 2 it doesn’t matter … You can’t predict what’s going to happen.”

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