Pittsburgh Penguins: Goaltending Could Be Issue in Long Run

By Jeff Ekiert
Jeff Zatkoff
Robert Mayer- USA TODAY Sports

There is no doubt that Marc-Andre Fleury has been an early candidate for the Vezina Trophy this season. So far, he has posted a 10-2-0 record with a 1.83 GAA and a .930 save percentage. Meanwhile, backup Jeff Zatkoff is 1-2-0 with a 3.36 GAA and .865 save percentage. He got his first NHL victory this past weekend when he shut out the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It is still early in the season, but the Pittsburgh Penguins may have an issue at the position going forward. Sure, Zatkoff got a shutout on paper, but only had to face 19 shots against a Blue Jackets team that looked like the protagonists in the movie, “The Hangover.”

People still question Fleury and what happened to him over the last two postseasons.

Here is your answer.

When entering the 2011 playoffs, Fleury played in 67 games throughout the regular season. He was completely drained at this point and even showed it a week or two before going into the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Why was he used excessively?

Head coach Dan Bylsma was not confident in backup Brent Johnson as he failed to show any sign that he could lighten the load for the Penguins’ starter. Johnson was horrible during that season. Pittsburgh had no choice but to play Fleury in 82 percent of the games.

There are 82 games in a year before a long Stanley Cup playoff that goes through the beginning of June. That is a lot of hockey for one to play at that position. Especially after the game has changed (or attempted to do so by the league) with new rules promoting higher scoring games.

As far as last year’s 48-game season, Fleury only started in 31 games before flopping in the first round against the New York Islanders. But his flaw last year fell solely on himself. He allowed the pressure to affect him mentally and he crumbled. It was nothing physical; it was simply in his head.

A large amount of goaltenders in the league today can only play so much from October to April before entering a potential two-month playoff.

If you do not believe me, ask Roberto Luongo who has yet to prove he can get the job done in the playoffs when he makes 60-70 starts each year.

Now what happens this season when Bylsma is faced with deja vu? His stellar goaltender is backed by a young rookie who may not be NHL-ready. Sure, he could start Fleury in 65-70 games as he does every year and if he does, once April rolls around and the rain begins to fall expect the Flower to wilt for the third-consecutive year.

And what if Fleury goes down with an injury which he has been known to do? Will the Penguins truly feel confident in Zatkoff to carry the team like Tomas Vokoun did last season?

On top of that, Vokoun is expected to be out of commission until after the Olympics with a blood clot. If and when he returns, what kind of condition is he going to be in? There is no doubt he saved Pittsburgh last spring when he took over midway through the first round. But he will have to be as solid (if not better) than he was at that juncture.

Zatkoff has seen little time, but the fact is Bylsma needs to be confident in his backup in order to give Fleury the amount of rest needed to ensure he has enough left in the tank to carry them into the Stanley Cup Finals as he did in 2009. Yes, Fleury did play 67 games in 2009, but he was on what was one of the best teams in franchise history. And frankly, the defense then was 10 times better than the corps that is giving up too many shots this season.

They may give the young netminder another start or two to see how things progress, but time is of the essence. The Anaheim Ducks may be looking to move their third-string goaltender Frederick Anderson very soon and he would be ideal in a black and gold mask.

Jeff Ekiert is the Pittsburgh Penguins/NHL beat writer for RantSports.com. Like him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter @jmekiert and add him to your Google account.

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