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As he possibly rescues the season, Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic knows to accept the negative along with the positive

Alex Nedeljkovic wasn’t just upset.

Alex Nedeljkovic wasn’t only angry.

He was using offensive language.

By late February, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ difficulties had essentially turned the team’s remaining games on the 2023-24 regular season schedule into typical “must-wins.” And on Feb. 20, Nedeljovic and the Penguins failed to produce what was required in a 5-4 overtime loss at home to the New York Islanders.

The winning goal saw Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech — taking advantage of the vast space available during three-on-three play — skate into the offensive zone and shoot from the high slot off the left post and past the Penguins’ backup goaltender's blocker.

About 10 minutes after that defeat, the usually friendly Nedeljkovic was furious.

At himself.

“We played well the entire night,” a sad Nedeljkovic said. “We deserve two points. We deserved to win in regulation there. I messed up.”

Just over six weeks later, seemingly the only four-letter word that can be associated with Nedeljkovic’s name comes from wondering how in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks has he led the once struggling Penguins into the territorial waters of a playoff berth.

Essentially replacing struggling franchise goaltender Tristan Jarry as the team’s top option in net since March 24, Nedeljkovic has started the last seven games – two of which saw Jarry scratched due to an undisclosed illness – and posted a 5-0-2 record, a 2.31 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.

On the morning Nedeljkovic took the helm, the Penguins were nine points behind the final wild card position of the Eastern Conference with a 30-30-10 mark and 70 points.

Now, they are 35-30-11 with 81 points, only two short of the Philadelphia Flyers (36-29-11, 83 points) for third place in the Metropolitan Division and the New York Islanders (34-27-15, 83 points) for the final wild card seed.

It’s been quite a series of events for a goaltender who was offensive in explaining his own play not all that long ago to now be trusted by coaches with rescuing a season that had seemed all but lost.

“You just want to play and you want to play well when you get a chance,” Nedeljkovic said following a 3-2 home win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 28. “I’m just trying to do what I did at the beginning of the year whenever I was in net. Just be myself, play my game and give the guys a chance to win. Nothing’s really changed from that aspect of things.

“If they keep calling my name, I’ll just keep doing the best I can and if it’s back to (Jarry), it’s back to (Jarry) and I’ll be cheering him on and doing what I can to help him out as well.”

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AP
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, left, replaces Tristan Jarry during the third period of a game against the New York Rangers at PPG Paints Arena on March 16.
 

Much of this comeback by the Penguins with Nedeljkovic in net has happened because of what he has done with literal rebounds in the eyes of his teammates.

“He’s been getting a few games in a row here and really stepped up to the plate,” Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson said in Cranberry on March 29. “He’s been so solid in not leaving any rebounds. It’s been easy for us to play in front of him. You know sometimes (the opposition) has an advantage and you have to give up a shot but you know you can defend the next play by taking sticks away because there’s not going to be a rebound. His rebound control has been awesome.”

As great as the praise directed towards Nedeljkovic during this increase has been, he knows it is temporary.

That’s the way his position is examined externally, regardless of the expertise of those offering unwanted scrutiny.

“It just comes back to us (goaltenders) more than maybe the guys in front of us because we’re the last line of defense,” he said. “Every measurement we’re evaluated by, every statistic we’re evaluated by is how many times the puck goes in the net.

“To be pretty direct, I think the people that comprehend the position — that understand it more — they see it how it really is. It’s a combination of everything that happens in front of you. It’s not just what you do. The people that don’t necessarily understand the position or hardly at all, all they see is the puck going in the net or hitting you in the chest. When it comes down to it, that’s really the simplest way to explain it. It’s your job to stop the puck, but there is a lot more that goes into it.”

The way Nedeljkovic describes and views the position — without using offensive language — offers a clear picture of a man who is just as ready to deal with the narrow critiques directed at him as a goaltender as he is an uphill battle for the playoffs.

“It’s their opinion. They’re entitled to it,” Nedeljkovic said. “It doesn’t mean they’re right. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is the people in this room, the people on the staff that see it and go over it and make decisions based on what happens. Those are the people whose opinions matter. At the end of the day, we’re all professionals and I think we judge ourselves appropriately. Maybe a little bit more harsh than you need to be. But we know when it’s a bad game, we know when it’s a good game.

“There’s been games this year that we’ve lost or I’ve given up goals and you’re like, ‘That was a really good game. I gave up two bad goals but the rest of it — the other 59 minutes and 58 seconds — were unbelievable.’ It’s one of those positions where mentally you have to be really strong and take the bad with the good.”

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