WILKES-BARRE — The Jeff Zatkoff mystery has been solved. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins starting netminder was noticeably absent from the pregame skate before Thursday’s Game 3 against Binghamton.
With Brad Thiessen in net the Penguins didn’t miss a beat, winning 3-2 to advance to the second round. Afterward, head coach John Hynes said Zatkoff was “day-to-day” and his situation was “nothing serious.”
After two days off, the Penguins resumed practice at the Mohegan Sun Arena, and Zatkoff was a full participant, showing no signs of any serious injury.
Turns out he was just feeling a bit under the weather.
“He was sick,” Hynes said after practice. “He’s fine now. Back to normal.”
Normalcy wasn’t the case in the hours leading up to Thursday’s game, however.
Zatkoff said he started feeling sick around 4 p.m. on Wednesday. He took some medicine and attempted to sleep it off while the team monitored the situation closely. At the same time, Thiessen said he had inkling there might be a chance he would start Game 3.
That came to fruition at 2 p.m. on Thursday - five hours before game time, when Hynes called Thiessen to let him know he would start in place of Zatkoff.
Thiessen went on to stop 19-of-21 shots for his 13th career postseason win, and he was a big reason why Zatkoff decided not to push through his sickness and play.
“I tried to battle through it, but there comes a point where you just know physically that if you go out there you’re not going to give your team the best chance to win,” Zatkoff said. “When you have a guy like Brad right there, it doesn’t make sense for me to play when he’s ready to go.
“It was just something I had to get out of my system and I’m fine now. With us winning it was big to get those extra couple of days off.”
The Penguins practiced for about an hour at the arena on Sunday before going through off-ice workouts. Aside from Zatkoff’s illness, the team has stayed remarkably injury-free down the stretch and into the playoffs. Hynes attributed the run of health to depth and training.
By having plenty of players that can suit up any night at any position, Hynes has been able to give some of his regulars a night off, a move that has prevented the typical bumps and bruises from turning into something worse. “We haven’t had to put guys out there if it’s a 50-50 situation,” he said. “They get the benefit of extra rest, and guys can heal quicker, things stay minor and get better over the course of time.”
The other factor behind staying health is a reflection of the job that strength and conditioning coach Joe Lorincz has been doing to keep the players in shape. Hynes credited Lorincz with an off-ice training program that the team goes through twice a week all season.
“That takes away those pulls and strains because you’re fit and strong all year. It also helps to recover from injuries quicker because your body’s stronger and not broken down,” Hynes said. “There’s things you can’t help, such as breaks. But Joe does a great job and we very rarely get strains and pulls. That’s a tribute to Joe.”
Up in the air
As the team wrapped up practice on Sunday, their opponent for the next round still wasn’t determined. If Hershey defeated Providence on Sunday night, then the Penguins would face the Syracuse Crunch. If Providence forces a Game 5 on Wednesday and goes on to win the series, then the Bruins would be the next opponent. Hynes said they are keeping a close eye on how things shake out.
“There’s not many teams left and you want an idea as quick as you can,” he said. “But we’re fortunate to end our series early and it’s given us some time to relax and focus on our game. As the week goes on and we know who we will play, then we’ll turn our attention to more game plan specifics.”
The postseason schedule has been kind to the Penguins so far. They had Friday and Saturday off and will have a full week of practice before the second round begins. Team captain Joey Mormina said this isn’t usually the case during the playoffs.
“It’s pretty rare the way the schedule has been this year with the huge gaps. We just have to do a good job managing our time, enjoy time with our families and recharge,” he said. “Right now it’s just a matter of us fine-tuning our game and making sure our conditioning level doesn’t drop off this week.”