PITTSBURGH (AP) Banished to the third string in January, Jeff Zatkoff could have checked out. Instead, the Pittsburgh goalie kept showing up at the rink every day, cracking jokes to keep things loose and helping rookie Matt Murray – who took Zatkoff’s job as primary backup to Marc-Andre Fleury – get used to life in the NHL.
Then a concussion sidelined Fleury. Ditto, Murray. And suddenly Pittsburgh’s forgotten man was thrust into the role of unlikely starter heading into the playoffs. Zatkoff hardly looked overcome by the stage. Steady at the start and sharp throughout, Zatkoff made 35 saves in the Penguins’ 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals Wednesday night.
“He was our best player,” said Pittsburgh forward Patric Hornqvist after his first career playoff hat trick.
And every bit the equal of New York star Henrik Lundqvist, who played just 20 minutes before exiting after taking a stick to the eye from teammate Marc Staal late in the first period. Staal was tied up in front of the New York net when his stick found its way in between the bars on Lundqvist’s facemask. Lundqvist writhed in pain on the ice for several moments and stayed through the end of the period, the last shot he faced a rebound from Hornqvist that gave the Penguins a lead they would never relinquish.
Lundqvist will be re-evaluated Thursday and will have a little extra time to recover with Game 3 not scheduled until Saturday.
“I felt the stick in his helmet; I didn’t know where I got him,” Staal said. “Any time he goes down like that, and legs are kicking, it’s not a good sign.”
Antti Raanta stepped in and was shaky, giving up three goals on 19 shots as Pittsburgh took advantage once Lundqvist – who had won seven of his last eight playoff starts against the Penguins – left. Derek Stepan scored twice but the Rangers saw their four-game road winning streak in Pittsburgh come to an abrupt halt.
“There were a few things I think we can build on, but I do know that we’ve got quite a few guys that need to play better than they did tonight,” New York coach Alain Vigneault said. “We’re going to have to play better as a team.”
Sidney Crosby had a goal and two assists for Pittsburgh and rookie Tom Kuhnhackl also scored for the Penguins, but the star was the understated 28-year-old goalie who took his demotion in stride. He spent plenty of time with Pittsburgh goaltending coach Mike Bales to stay sharp. Tasked with keeping the 14-2 surge the Penguins put together to end the regular season intact, Zatkoff went about his business with the crispness surprising for a player making just his sixth appearance since Jan. 1.
“You just have to make sure you’re staying ready in case the team needs you and finding you times to get on the ice to get those shots and get that work,” Zatkoff said. “Obviously not the circumstances you want to come in.”
Not that it seemed to bother Zatkoff with Lundqvist – making his 111th career playoff start – on the other end of the ice. Good thing because his teammates gave him little help early. New York dominated the opening minutes, throwing shots at Zatkoff from all angles rather than trying to set anything up. Zatkoff lacks Fleury’s athleticism but managed to scramble when required, keeping the Penguins afloat early while his teammates took time to find their legs.
“It’s not an easy situation to come into,” Crosby said. “We kind of had a slow start, tested him a lot early and he made some big saves. Just a great game from him and allowed us to kind of get comfortable out there and get our game back.”
New York’s decided advantage in the net disappeared when Staal’s stick made contact with Lundqvist’s face, forcing Raanta to unexpectedly make his postseason debut. He had little to do until a stretch pass from Hornqvist sprung Crosby in alone late in the second period. The wrist shot zipped over Raanta’s glove and the Penguins were up 2-0.
New York’s drew to 2-1 when Stepan stuffed in a shot from the doorstep on a 5-on-3 but Pittsburgh countered with a short-handed goal from Kuhnhackl 5:31 into the third and when Hornqvist pounced on a loose puck in the Rangers’ crease and eased it in, the Penguins were up three and in control.
“I’ll enjoy it tonight,” Zatkoff said. “But, you know, get focused on Game 2 and I just continue to work hard no matter what happens. You can’t predict what’s going to happen.”
NOTES: The teams held a pregame moment of silence for longtime Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider, who passed away earlier this week. … Stepan has six goals in his last six games. … Pittsburgh dressed seven defensemen rather than the usual six and scratched forward Tom Sestito. … The Penguins improved to 21-14 in Game 1s at home. … Both teams went 1 for 5 on the power play.