EL SEGUNDO, CA — For Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jeff Zatkoff, the 2016-17 season has been a bit of a nightmare.
With a 2-7-1 record, a 2.94 goals against average and a poor .881 save percentage in just twelve appearances, the 29-year-old native of Detroit, Michigan is fighting to get back on top of his game.
“It’s been a frustrating year,” he admitted. “If you look at it, I think I’ve had seven starts. I think most of my appearances have been in relief. I’m not making excuses, by any means. I haven’t won enough games.”
One challenge Zatkoff has had to deal with is coming from the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that allows more shots, on average, than his current team.
“It’s different for me, coming from a team where you get a lot of shots,” he said. “The big thing for me is that I haven’t been able to make that timely save this year in the games I’ve been in. Just one goal too many.”
“The [New York] Rangers game [on January 23, a 3-2 loss]—I felt good,” he added. “It was a 2-1 game, and I made a tough play behind the net. I’m not trying to make that mistake, obviously. But that ended up being the game-winner. Like I said, I seem to be coming up a save short at a key time to keep it a one-goal game.”
“It’s no secret how we play. We’re a low scoring team. We don’t score a lot, so it’s my job to keep it close.”
Dealing with pressure created by the spotlight that always shines bright on goaltenders is never easy. But Zatkoff indicated that this type of pressure is not a problem for him.
“That’s my position,” he said. “It’s like the quarterback [in football]. If we won that game in New York, nobody says anything about that turnover behind the net. That’s just not the way it’s going, but that’s part of [playing this] position. When you win, you’re going to get the praise. When you don’t, a lot of times, you’ll get the blame, whether you feel it’s warranted or not.”
Indeed, it’s a different kind of pressure that has affected Zatkoff—he’s been worrying about things he can’t control.
“When you lose a few in a row you want to try to get wins for your teammates and you put a little too much pressure on yourself,” he said. “You start pushing too much. You start worrying about what’s coach going to think. You just have to worry about stopping the puck.”
“I think, lately, I’ve let circumstances affect me too much,” he added. “I’ve worried about how many shots am I going to get or how many goals are we going to score. I’ve just got to get back to competing, having fun, trusting myself and not worrying about all that stuff. I just have to worry about stopping the next shot.”
Zatkoff indicated that his problems are not related to his style or technique.
“If you talk to [Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford], if you go through my game, my urgency is there,” said Zatkoff. “My reads—everything’s there. I just haven’t come up with a save when we needed it and that’s the bottom line. I don’t think it’s necessarily that I’m just going in and letting bad goals in, one after another. I just haven’t been able to make a key save at a key time, and that’s why my record isn’t great.”
“I’m lucky to have a guy like Billy,” added Zatkoff. “We can really take a step back and look at my game. But like I said, from an urgency standpoint, movement, technique, I think we’re happy with where my game is. For me now, I’ve just got to be able to make that save at a key time and get some wins. That’s the difference.”
Indeed, Zatkoff just has to focus on what’s important—stopping the puck—when he gets his chance to play.
“I’ve just got to keep battling, working hard in practice,” he stressed. “I feel good in practices. I’ve just got to find a way to get wins. But yeah, it’s been frustrating, in a sense, because you play, then you don’t play. Nobody likes sitting on losses. But I’ve just got to keep battling and find a way to get some points here down the stretch. There’s a lot of opportunities coming up where I have to get some wins, so I’ve got to stay with it.”
The only question now is when he might get his next chance, given that Peter Budaj has played very well and that head coach Darryl Sutter is known for riding his top goaltender.
“[Budaj] has been playing great,” Zatkoff noted. “Obviously, I’d love to get in there, get some wins for the team, contribute and get into a little bit of a rhythm. At the same time, Budaj has played great and I knew what I was coming into here. That’s how Darryl is. Whomever he decides is his number one, he’s going to be the one who plays. That’s Darryl’s M.O., whether it’s me here, or [former Kings goaltender] Martin Jones, or when he was in Calgary with [Miika] Kiprusoff. That’s just something I have to deal with. I’ve got to win.”
“That’s life of a backup,” Zatkoff added. “That’s your job, so not being sharp because I haven’t played much is not an excuse. That’s what I get paid to do—to not play for awhile and then, go in, get wins and make sure the team doesn’t miss a beat.”
“My practices are my games now, here on out. That way, when I get [into a game], I have to make sure that I remember that whatever has happened is in the past. It’s only about what’s going forward for me and building on that.”
Zatkoff and the Kings are hoping that the All-Star break will be the start of a big turnaround.
“It was nice to be able to go home for the All-Star break, reset my mind, get away from the rink and re-focus—whatever’s happened has happened,” he noted. “I’ve got to win some games now.”
“From here on out, that’s my focus. Whenever it might be that I get in there, I have to make sure that I compete and get a win for the team.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jeff Zatkoff. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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