Sunday, July 13, 2014

Stability in net

Penguins tandem delivers in pressure position

December 29. 2013 1:30AM

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Earlier this month Eric Hartzell worked double-duty when he played in back-to-back games for the first time with the Penguins. He won both starts — allowing three goals to Hershey and then shutting out Utica the following night.

The extra work is nothing new to Hartzell, who started all 42 games last season as a senior with Quinnipiac University.

As far as the adage that goaltenders really can’t play on consecutive nights, Hartzell said it’s a myth.

“It’s got to be. I think I can play three games in a row if I had to,” he said. “It’s all mental really and it’s something I definitely don’t mind. This team does a great job in front of me that I’m not overworked on any night.”

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Since the end of November, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have watched six forwards and three defensemen get called up to Pittsburgh.

During the same span, the team recalled another six forwards and three defensemen from the ECHL.

About the only constant for the Penguins this season has been in net, and the way head coach John Hynes sees it, that’s the most important area to see some stability.

“Goaltending is crucial in a number of ways,” Hynes said. “When you have good goaltending, it gives the players confidence to do things on the ice and not have to worry that a mistake or breakdown will end up in the back of the net. You want your guys to play with confidence, and that all comes down to good goaltending.”

Ever since rookie Eric Hartzell was called up from Wheeling on Nov. 20, the Penguins situation in net has been relatively stable as fowards and defensemen changed on an almost daily basis.

Together with veteran netminder Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, the Penguins goaltending tandem has allowed the third-fewest goals (69) in the AHL heading into Friday.

While its been a revolving door at the forward and defensemen ranks, Hynes is more than happy to see his goaltenders serve as the one constant.

“When you have a lot of inconsistencies with your lineup and new players coming into new situations, it helps when they believe in the guy in net,” he said. “Eric and Jeff have been solid for us and when we needed our goaltender to step up, they’ve both done it.”

Deslauriers, 29, is in his 10th pro season and is third in the AHL with 12 wins. He also ranks in the top 10 in goals against average (2.24) and minutes (1177:15). His rookie counterpart, Hartzell, is second in the league with two shutouts to go along with an impressive 2.18 GAA and a .913 save percentage in six starts.

The pair gives Hynes yet another solid goaltending tandem, something he’s been blessed with ever since taking over the head coaching duties in 2010. The first year of Hynes’ tenure, his goaltending duo consisted of Brad Thiessen and John Curry, who combined to win the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for allowing the fewest goals in the 2010-11 regular season.

The following season, Curry left and veteran Scott Munroe joined Thiessen in net and the duo combined to win 42 games. Last season, Jeff Zatkoff replaced Munroe and posted a 1.93 GAA while splitting time with Thiessen.

Now, Zatkoff is the backup goaltender in Pittsburgh and Thiessen is with the Norfolk Admirals. But Deslauriers and Hartzell are carrying on the team’s tradition of a strong presence in the net.

“Over the course of my time here, it’s been nice to always have two guys that your team believes in,” Hynes said. “We believe as an organization that solid goaltending gives you a chance to develop players but they can play in a winning environment.”

It also gives the goaltenders a chance to develop as well.

Deslauriers acknowledged that it’s important for the Penguins young players — especially those on defense — to see the confidence that their goaltenders have. Having played behind a lot of defenses in his career, Deslauriers knows just how to make a blueline corps filled with rookies play like seasoned veterans.

“Communication is the key when you have new guys coming in,” he said. “I talk with them a lot and try to help them make the good, smart play with the puck.”

Hartzell, who is in his first pro season, said all the changes in front of him haven’t affected his approach on game day.

“It doesn’t matter who is in front of you, your job as a goalie is simply to stop the puck,” he said. “Even with the lineup we’ve had, the new guys have done such a great job that we don’t need to change our approach in net.”

Hartzell has a point.

Heading into this weekend, three of the Penguins’ seven defensemen — Harrison Ruopp, Nick D’Agostino and Scott Harrington — are rookies. Two others — Barry Goers and Dustin Stevenson — are in their first stints with the team, while Brendan Mikkelson is an AHL veteran and Philip Samuelsson is in his third year with the team.

Combined, the unit is a plus-9 on the year.

“It’s a two-way street really,” Deslauriers said. “For young, new players it’s good to see their goaltenders playing well, and when you know they’re going to do their job in front of you it gives you confidence in the net as well.”

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