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Nedeljkovic in Net; Sullivan’s Plans for Penguins Goaltending



Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Nedeljkovic

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Alex Nedeljkovic will start in net again for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s “Ned’s net,” as coach Mike Sullivan has tabbed the Penguins’ backup goalie to start his fourth straight game when the Penguins visit the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday at Nationwide Arena.

It’s not only the fourth straight start but will be the fifth straight appearance for Nedeljkovic, as he relieved started Tristan Jarry in the Penguins’ 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars eight days ago.

Saturday, coach Mike Sullivan laid out the plan for the goalies, but it probably isn’t as defined as it was a week ago.

“It’s a discussion we have after every game. We certainly have games penciled in for both of them,” Sullivan said. “But we’re going to make decisions day to day, and performance always is going to be the dictator.”

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of a No. 1 goalie.

The Penguins have won two straight, a strong 60-minute effort against the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday and a slumbering, sloppy victory over Columbus at PPG Paints Arena Thursday. Nedeljkovic started both games and the prior game in which the Penguins earned a point whilst blowing a four-goal lead to the Colorado Avalanche.

Nedeljkovic, 28, has started in several crucial games this month, including a 6-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings, whom the Penguins trail in the wild-card race, and against Carolina, essentially a must-win game if the Penguins had any hopes of prolonging their playoff pursuit.

He has relieved starter Tristan Jarry three times in March, beginning with the March 7 debacle against the Washington Capitals on the night the Penguins traded the popular winger Jake Guentzel. On March 16, Nedeljkovic relieved Jarry in the 7-4 loss to the New York Rangers, which the Penguins tried but could not keep up with the Metro Division leader, and in Dallas.

Jarry hasn’t started since Sullivan yanked him early in the third period against Dallas.

While Nedeljkovic’s stat line doesn’t leap off the page over the last several games, his performance has been impactful with important saves, especially early and late in games. He’s posted a .938 save percentage over the last three, including gobbling up 38 of 39 shots against Carolina.

Nedeljkovic will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1 as his one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Penguins expired. He’s undergone a resurgence with the Penguins after a couple of difficult seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, including being demoted to the AHL last season.

This season with the Penguins, the gregarious goalie who dared wear a Miles Garrett Cleveland Browns jersey into the locker room after his hometown Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers is 12-6-5 with a .905 save percentage.

Jarry has slumped in March, posting an .870 save percentage behind both some energetic and abysmal performances by the Penguins’ skaters. He’s 2-6-1 with a 4.40 goals against average. He figures to start at least one of the games next week when the Penguins have back-to-back games against the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers.

The Penguins No. 1 goalie has dropped to a .903 save percentage and a 19-24-5 record.

For now, the team is riding Nedeljkovic’s swift glove hand and quick pads, and Sullivan doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to take it away. After all, performance matters.