For most teams, accumulating 314 man-games lost over the course of one season would be catastrophic to their chances of winning. That’s not the case with these Pittsburgh Penguins.
Without superstar center Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh won 14 of its final 16 games and surged up the standings to finish second in the Metropolitan division. Top goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury also missed the last five regular season games, and the Penguins still kept winning.
Pittsburgh faced another surprise injury hurdle in Game 1 against the Rangers on Wednesday.
Backup goaltender Matt Murray, who went 4-0-0 with a 0.936 save percentage and 1.84 GAA in Fleury’s absence, suffered an upper-body injury in the season finale. With Fleury still unable to go, the Penguins were forced to turn to third-string netminder Jeff Zatkoff.
But once again, Pittsburgh passed the injury test with flying colors. Zatkoff made the crucial saves at key moments of the game and gave the Penguins a chance to win.
Some fans might look at Pittsburgh’s 5-2 victory in Game 1 over New York and think the Penguins goaltender didn’t play that big of a role. That, however, was certainly not the case.
The Rangers recorded 37 shots overall, including 12 of the first 15 in the game. But the score remained 0-0 because of Zatkoff’s stellar goaltending. If the 28-year-old netminder, who was making his Stanley Cup playoffs debut, hadn’t been as sharp, the Penguins could have been in an early two or even three-goal hole.
Instead, Pittsburgh was the team that had the two-goal cushion heading into the third period. With two teammates in the penalty box, Zatkoff did finally allow a goal early in the third stanza, but with 2:58 still remaining on Carl Hagelin’s double minor, he came up with a couple more timely stops to preserve the lead.
As much as every team will tell you that the objective is to give up the fewest goals possible, for the Penguins, those timely saves are going to be most important.
Moments after Zatkoff made some key stops on the penalty kill, which also included a heads up defensive play from Ben Lovejoy, the Penguins scored a shorthanded goal. Three minutes later, Pittsburgh notched another goal on the power play.
Not to take anything away from the Penguins skaters who were involved in those two goals, but they wouldn’t have had the opportunity without Zatkoff’s saves just a few seconds earlier.
Fleury made these types of saves all season long. For example, on Mar. 26 in Detroit, Pittsburgh was ahead by two in the second period and headed to the power play, looking to put a stranglehold on the game. Instead, the Penguins power play was probably too aggressive and, in the process, allowed two 2-on-1 breakouts for Detroit.
But Fleury stood tall, stopping both opportunities, and Pittsburgh did eventually score on that man advantage to take a three-goal lead. The Penguins went on to win, 7-2, scoring a season-high number of goals.
Naturally, no one is going to be talking about goaltending on a day when the offense scores seven goals, but one can definitely argue that game versus Detroit would have looked a lot different had Fleury not made those two key stops int the second period.
The same kind of thing happened the following weekend with Murray in net. Against the Flyers on Apr. 3, the Flyers had a great scoring chance stifled by Murray early in the game, which allowed Pittsburgh to score later in the first period. Murray came up with another nice save at the beginning of the second period to keep the two-goal lead.
Like the matchup with Detroit, that game turned into a, 6-2, blowout, however, it might not have without timely saves from Murray.
Sometimes, it’s not about the number of saves, but the timing of the saves. Of course, Zatkoff had both of those Wednesday.
Regardless of who mans the Penguins’ net the rest of the first round, if they continue to get timely goaltending, Pittsburgh is going to have a chance to win.