Jeff Zatkoff answers the call after two starters go down

PITTSBURGH -- Let's be honest. This could have been an unmitigated disaster for the Pittsburgh Penguins at a time when they could ill afford another unmitigated playoff disaster.

With their two top goaltenders unable to play because of injury, they turned to a 28-year-old who had never played in an NHL playoff game, and in fact hadn't even dressed for much of March and was scrambling to find time to get on the ice and get enough shots to stay sharp.

But the disaster never happened to goalie Jeff Zatkoff, and it didn't happen to the Penguins who, as they have throughout the second half of the season, simply faced another bit of adversity with a collective shrug of their shoulders as they whipped the New York Rangers 5-2 in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series Wednesday night.

Who knows what happens next for Zatkoff, who found out he was playing Game 1 on Tuesday night even though veteran starter Marc-Andre Fleury skated Monday and Tuesday and took the morning skate Wednesday.

With an extra off day between Game 1 and Game 2 on Saturday afternoon, maybe Fleury is healthy enough to return to action as he tries to recover from his second concussion of the season.

Maybe this moment doesn't present itself again for Zatkoff or the Penguins.

Maybe he will step back into the shadows from whence he emerged, much to the surprise of Penguins fans and indeed the Rangers, who were expecting Fleury to start.

But even if that is the case, what Zatkoff accomplished in turning aside 35 of 37 shots and earning his first playoff victory will not be forgotten by his teammates or the Penguins' fans, who are all too used to having playoff moments like this turn badly for the home side.

"We're thrilled for him," Penguins center Nick Bonino said. "I think of all the guys you want to see do well in this room, he's at the top of the list."

"He's been a professional throughout this whole thing. He hasn't complained. He's been a great teammate and a great pro. We all know how great of a guy he is; I think it's good that the hockey world is seeing how great of a goalie he is because he came in and won that game for us. We could have been down two or three goals in the first 10 minutes. He shut the door and got us a chance to win."

Whatever nerves Zatkoff felt -- he admitted he didn't get much of a pregame nap -- he betrayed none as he was sharp early and then at various moments when the Rangers could have closed the gap.

With time running out in the third period, the crowd as one saluted Zatkoff's performance with chants of his name, a moment that will stay with the netminder long after this night.

"Definitely sent chills through me a little bit," he said surrounded by a throng of reporters and cameras. "That'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."

Who doesn't love a rags-to-riches, understudy-to-heroic-star narrative?

But these things don't happen by magic except on celluloid. They happen in real life because a player such as Zatkoff does not get discouraged and it happens because a coaching staff understands that attention has to be paid to all players on a team, not only the stars, not only the players who get to suit up every night.

Goaltending coach Mike Bales deserves credit for finding time to get Zatkoff the work he needed to stay sharp, to be ready for a moment like this, even if a moment like this seemed highly unlikely.

"I think it's a tough spot," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said after the win. "I can't say enough about Jeff and how he's handled the situation that he's been in over the last couple months."

There's a reason most teams don't carry three goaltenders and go out of their way to avoid having a three-headed monster. There's simply not enough time and ice to keep everyone happy. Someone, generally the third man, always suffers in this equation.

When Matt Murray was called up from the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate and supplanted Zatkoff as backup, pushing him down the depth chart, it would have been easy to let things slide in terms of preparation and working on his game.

But Zatkoff's work ethic didn't suffer, and the coaching staff wouldn't allow that to happen and neither would his teammates, who stayed late after practice to help him get his reps.

"I had a lot of goalie sessions with Mike Bales. A lot of early sessions," Zatkoff said. "A lot of work after practice with the guys, and guys always staying on. You just never know when that opportunity's going to come. And you've got to make sure you're ready in case the team needs you."

And there it is, no? The eternal message of backups and minor leaguers and depth players -- stay ready for that opportunity because you never know when it will come.

Sometimes it never does and maybe it comes only once. But Zatkoff proved Wednesday night that staying ready for those moments even if they seem as distant as another planet pays dividends.