Pittsburgh Penguins: Problems Continue to Lie in Goaltending, Not Defense

By Jeff Ekiert
Marc-Andre Fleury
Ed Mulholland- USA TODAY Sports

Once again, it was Marc-Andre Fleury in net Saturday night for the Pittsburgh Penguins in their 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils after starting the previous night on the team’s back-to-back weekend.

Normally, it would be ideal to start Jeff Zatkoff against a Nashville Predators team that the Penguins had no problem with on Friday night as they cruised to a 4-1 victory. Instead, Fleury has now started in Pittsburgh’s last five games, where he has gone 1-4-0 and given up 13 goals. It is not so much Fleury’s performance in goal, but his fatigue must be a concern to someone.

The fact that head coach Dan Bylsma had an opportunity to start Zatkoff in game one of a back-to-back and refused to do so means one thing — there is no confidence in him. As mentioned in my previous column, the concern for the team and its fans should be Fleury’s condition come April.

With the Anaheim Ducks coming to town Monday night, you would think Bylsma will turn to his No. 1 guy again, resulting in the Flower playing in four games in six days. He has started in 17 of the Penguins’ 20 games thus far. At this rate, he will be playing between 65-70 games (not including if he squeezes onto Team Canada’s roster for the Olympics).

Fleury’s numbers are not bad by any means, as two of those recent losses ended by scores of 2-1. Besides, fans are so hung up on the fact that Pittsburgh is in an offensive drought right now. They have scored just one goal in each of his last three losses. Some even tend to point fingers at the defense, but that is not the problem. This issue which has been ongoing for weeks is something that needs to be considered for the future of the season.

The offense will come around eventually, and Rob Scuderi will be returning in a matter of weeks, but something needs to be done about Bylsma’s backup options with Tomas Vokoun out indefinitely. If he feels he can ride Fleury all the way until March and plan on Vokoun coming back in the same exact form he was in last year, Pittsburgh could be in some trouble when the playoffs roll around.

There is no guarantee that Vokoun will be in good enough shape to be the Penguins’ savior this spring if needed. He is 37-years-old and could be facing his last season in the NHL. Coming back from a blood clot is not like making a return from a shoulder or ankle injury. It is much more serious and certain precautions will need to be taken if Vokoun wants to make a return in 2014-15.

In a worst-case scenario with Vokoun, Fleury cannot start 65-plus games and miraculously be lights-out for an additional 8-10 weeks all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. It is absurd.

With every problem there lies a solution. GM Ray Shero needs to start calling around (if he has not done so already) and find a solid backup goaltender for this team. Whether it is Frederick Anderson from Anaheim, or even a Michael Neuvirth from the Washington Capitals, a deal needs to be made.

Bylsma already showed through his coaching decision this weekend that they have no confidence in their current backup. Even if they feel Zatkoff is not NHL-ready, why not give him some playing time against one of the Western Conference‘s worst against the Predators? That was the perfect chance for him to get an easy win and gain some self-confidence for the time being.

Sadly enough, Pittsburgh’s schedule will not get any sunnier this month. They will play five of their remaining eight games in November on the road, and will be pinned up against the bigger juggernauts in the Eastern Conference. Of those eight games, only two will be against teams with sub-.500 records (New York Islanders, Florida Panthers). Maybe Zatkoff will get the nod November 30 against the Panthers.

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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