By Tom Williams
Tonight’s Pittsburgh Penguins tribute at the Covelli Centre during the Youngstown Phantoms-Muskegon Lumberjacks game was kick-started on Friday when Pens goalie Jeff Zatkoff watched the Phantoms fall to Waterloo, 4-3.
Zatkoff, a rookie who backs up Marc-Andre Fleury, is friends with Phantoms goalie Sean Romeo from Cary, N.C.
Growing up in North Carolina, Zatkoff’s fiancee Kristen Smith was Romeo’s babysitter.
Zatkoff and Smith met when they were students at Miami University, where he played for the Redhawks. Before that, the Detroit native played for the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers.
“When we started dating, I met Sean,” said Zatkoff (7-2-1, 2.67 goals against average). “We’re both goalies and we’ve skated together in the summers here and there.”
Last season, Zatkoff, 26, went 26-20-0 for the Wilkes-Barre Baby Pens of the American Hockey League.
He made the Penguins roster during training camp after Tomas Vokoun, the Pens’ top goalie in the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, was sidelined because of a recurrence of blood clot issues.
The Pens are enjoying a rare four-day break in their NHL schedule.
“This is the first [USHL] game I’ve seen him play,” said Zatkoff, who watched the game in Phantoms owner Bruce Zoldan’s suite. “He’s done really well for himself.
“It’s exciting for me to watch him go through the ranks of the USHL and college,” Zatkoff said “I know kind of what he’s going through.
“It’s nice to see him develop. I’ll be excited to see him go on to [the University of] Maine.”
Romeo is in his third full season with the Phantoms. He set the franchise record for victories (31) last season.
This year, Romeo suffered a groin injury in training camp that caused him to miss most of the first half of the season.
“Obviously, I don’t think things have gone for the team as they wanted this year, but there’s a lot of time left still,” Zatkoff said.
With 71 points, the Penguins (34-12-2) lead the NHL’s Eastern Conference as the Winter Olympics break approaches. Only the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks have more points.
“We got off to a really exciting start,” Zatkoff said. “We’ve had our fair share of injuries but we’ve had different guys come up and fill in.
“We’ve built a cushion but there are still a lot of games left, a lot of work left,” Zatkoff said. “But it’s a very exciting time for me.”