CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa — Casey DeSmith thought he would have a few weeks during the season to hone his game before getting a spot start to spell Penguins starting goaltender Matt Murray.
“I was looking at the schedule and I was kind of talking to (goaltenders coach Mike Buckley) and kind of trying to piece together when I might get a game two weeks from now or whenever,” DeSmith said. “It’s a really light schedule and we really didn’t have a date in mind, so we just were going to spend October and feel great about my game whenever the time comes.”
It came along much sooner than he or the rest of the team imagined.
On Tuesday the team announced that Murray would miss his scheduled start on Thursday against Las Vegas because of a concussion he suffered during the Penguins Monday practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. No timetable has been established for his return, which means DeSmith has been catapulted to the starting role, at least for the time being.
Although likely, there has been no official word whether or not the team plans to recall goaltender Tristan Jarry from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Fortunately, the WBS Penguins also practiced in Cranberry on Tuesday, en route to Cleveland.
“What our plan is is we’ll take it each day as it comes, but obviously I have to have a conversation with (general manager) Jim Rutherford,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “They’re good goalies and we believe in these guys. They’re young guys, but certainly their body of work last year was very strong, they won games for us and we believe that can make the timely saves for us to help us win.”
Since stepping in for Marc-Andre Fleury — who missed the latter part of the 2015-16 win a concussion of his own — and helping the Penguins to the first of their back-to-back Stanley Cups, Murray has spent almost as much time on the injury list as he has in the lineup. He played only 49 regular season games each of the last two seasons and this is the eighth reported injury of the 24-year-old netminder’s brief career.
It’s also his third career concussion and the second in his last 10 regular season games dating back to last season when he was injured on Feb. 24 and was out 24 days. His first came on the eve of the 2016 playoffs and pushed Jeff “Mr. Game 1” Zatkoff into action against the New York Rangers in Round 1.
“It’s really hard to draw any conclusions with this stuff because everybody’s different and that’s been my experience in dealing with concussions with different players over the years,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes players bounce back extremely quick and others tend to linger and it’s hard to predict, so I really haven’t given much thought and consideration into it at this point and we hope Matt will get healthy.”
Until that occurs, DeSmith will once again step in to replace the two-time Stanley Cup champion until he is fully recovered. Last year in spot duty, he played 14 games, starting 11 and 6-4-1 with a 2.40 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage. His GAA and save percentage were both better than Murray, who finished 27-16-3 with a 2.92 GAA and a .907 save percentage.
Both netminders had one shutout.
“I would say most goalies come into the league and maybe in their minds, there’s a little bit of a question mark because they’ve never played at this level with the best-of-the-best players out there,” DeSmith said. “Getting all that experience and having a lot of success was really important to me, confidence-wise, and having that belief in myself that I belong here.”
Jarry still could be a factor moving forward as the idea in sending him to Wilkes-Barre was so he could get regular playing time instead of pulling spot starts. In his 27 NHL appearances, he is 14-7-2 with a 2.78 GAA, a .907 save percentage and led the Penguins last season with two shutouts.
Still, DeSmith will be in the net on Thursday against the Golden Knights. And he’s certainly pleased with having a couple of days to prepare for his season debut.
“Doing all the things off the ice, visualization, stuff like that and being able to do all that looking ahead to Thursday is definitely nice,” DeSmith said. “It’s better than finding out day-of or that kind of thing.”