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Penguins Notes: Crosby Readies for Letang ‘Honor,’ DeSmith Fresh Advantage



Pittsburgh Penguins, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin

CRANBERRY, Twp — If called, he will serve. And happily so. Pittsburgh Penguins depth forward Alex Nylander was slotted as the fourth-line center at Penguins practice Monday while regular pivot Jeff Carter was absent.

With Josh Archibald and Drew O’Connor on his wings, Nylander went through the Penguins’ line rushes and drills in the middle. PHN chatted with the forward after practice and found an eager player hoping for the challenge.

Nylander was made a regular recall two weeks ago and his NHL status is no longer tied to the Penguins’ injury situation. Carter was excused for personal reasons on Monday and will make the trip with the team to Detroit.

That would seem to indicate Carter will be in the lineup. However, if not, Nylander was downright enthusiastic about playing in the middle. The smile was genuine. We didn’t get “athlete speak” or platitudes.

“No, no (problem). I played center when I was younger,” Nylander said. “…I took a lot of faceoffs this year in (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton), in the right circle on the backhand … It was pretty good.”

Nylander also noted how the Penguins’ system launches centers out of the defensive zone with speed. As centers go deep in the zone, they get something akin to a running start at the breakout, so they’re at full throttle in the neutral zone.

He seemed to have a pretty good grasp of the position. Whether or not he gets to play it remains to be seen. Based on his first handful of games, backchecking and his work in the defensive zone wouldn’t be a problem.

*If you’d asked me before practice if Nylander could play in the middle, I would have immediately said no. After talking with the player and his excitement for the potential, I dare say it could be a possibility.

If the Penguins get a points lead in the final few games, perhaps we will see it.

Casey DeSmith, Secret Weapon

DeSmith, 31, has endured struggles this season. There were ample calls for Penguins GM Ron Hextall to hit the goalie market ahead of the NHL trade deadline.

Hextall did not.

However, several players are elevating their games in March, DeSmith included. One secret is — he’s fresher and healthier down the stretch this season as the Penguins are in the pressure-cooker of a late-season playoff race.

“I would say (I’m fresher). I think my body as a whole is holding up quite a bit better than past years,” said DeSmith. “We’ve gotten some good protocols in place for recovery and just getting our bodies in a place where maybe we can push the envelope a little bit more towards the end of the year and most importantly, stay healthy.”

Perhaps it can be noted that Coach Mike Sullivan said Tristan Jarry’s recent upper-body injury was not an aggravation but a new injury, which only adds to the importance of DeSmith’s play.

DeSmith has course-corrected from the subpar beginning of the season to an inconsistent middle and now a strong finish. His save percentage in March is .921, and he was a primary reason the Penguins beat the Washington Capitals Saturday. The “backup” goalie was nothing less than brilliant in the first two periods.

“I felt like one of those games where I was just feeling it and going for it,” said DeSmith. “It kind of came back to bite me on the first goal against. But yeah, I was definitely challenging there. Maybe a little bit more than usual, but I was just kind of going for it, I guess.”

In 2021, DeSmith suffered a late-season injury and was unavailable for the playoffs as starter Tristan Jarry scuffled through a rough six-game loss to the New York Islanders. Most observers agreed the Penguins’ skaters significantly outplayed New York.

In 2022, DeSmith suffered an injury in the second overtime of Game 1 against the New York Rangers and was unable to return to the seven-game series. Third goalie Louis Domingue valiantly held the net but faltered later in the series as the Penguins coughed up a 3-1 series lead.

Whether or not he starts Tuesday against the Detroit Red Wings, DeSmith clearly has some momentum.

“It’s much more fun to be on the rink when you’re winning,” he said with a smile.

Kris Letang 1000 Games — from Shelly Anderson:

Longtime teammate Sidney Crosby, who along with third core player Evgeni Malkin already have crested 1,000 games, figures defenseman Kris Letang probably has logged the equivalent of that and more.

Letang is scheduled to officially hit 1,000 Sunday against rival Philadelphia.

“He’s kind of taking a long road to a thousand,” Crosby said. “He’s been through a lot. He’s had to battle through a number of injuries. His game itself is a pretty tough game, the way that he plays. A thousand is probably (the equivalent) of more than that, given the way that he plays and the amount of time that he plays. It’s quite the accomplishment.

“It’s a milestone for anybody, but for sure, the way he plays the game and the amount of minutes he plays, that’s a lot of hockey.”

Letang, 35, has averaged 24:11 of ice time over his career, but he has logged considerably more than that for a lot of his career.

He also has been through several medical situations, including concussions and two strokes.

When Crosby and then Malkin hit 1,000, the team had a lot of fun with it during the pregame warmup, with all the teammates wearing that player’s jersey and mimicking his warmup routine, including Crosby tying his skates midway through and Malkin, on his back, doing a scissors kick stretch.

Will the Penguins be able to top that for Letang?

“We’ll find a way,” Crosby said with a wide grin. “We’ve had 17 years or whatever (of watching him). We should be all right.”