Casey DeSmith is earning the Pittsburgh Penguins trust. No player would ever dare say they didn’t trust their goaltender, but not many veterans with Stanley Cup rings would blindly trust a 27-year who before this season had only 14 games experience to become the go-to guy. Yet, that’s exactly what is happening with the Penguins as they painstakingly turn their season around.
DeSmith is becoming “the guy” and his teammates are showing trust; not just through their words but through what they are not saying and not doing.
Of course, when asked head coach Mike Sullivan offers praise.
“He was really good all night, he was locked in,” said the head coach. “He made big saves for us.”
But that’s all Sullivan said. He didn’t need to expound. Didn’t need to heap praise or go into an in-depth explanation. He simply treated DeSmith’s third straight stellar performance and stellar season as no big deal.
DeSmith raised his record to 9-4-4 with a .925 save percentage. His save percentage is tied for seventh in the NHL. DeSmith is currently eight with the 2.34 goals against average.
“Yeah,” said Crosby without a hint of surprise before allowing a reporter to finish the obvious question about DeSmith’s performance. “He was great all night. He made big save after big save.”
DeSmith’s biggest moments in regulation Monday night were in the final minutes of the second period. Before the Penguins shuffled their lines to finally create some offense in the third period, they trailed 1-0. If the Islanders scored another goal in the second period, the game was likely over. However, DeSmith robbed Leo Komarov in the crease. Before that, he made a slick save on Anders Lee.
The fragile Penguins had more to lose than a game. Another loss would have put them three points behind the Islanders for third place in the Metro Division, been their second straight loss, and uncorked another bottle of ugly questions and doubt. But with each save, DeSmith’s numbers got better and his stature grew.
It was a big game, and DeSmith was a big goalie.
He is not only stopping the puck, but he is also saving the Penguins season. Lest you think that prognosis is over the top, ask teams like the St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers what can happen when starting goalies don’t come through.
DeSmith is posting top-10 numbers behind the same team in which starting goaltender Matt Murray has posted a .877 save percentage and a 4.08 goals against average.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was equally nonchalant about DeSmith’s performance, Monday night, “Yeah. He was really good,” shrugged Letang in his postgame media availability.
Letang didn’t respond to the undercurrent of surprise in the question, not because DeSmith wasn’t worthy of praise but because DeSmith is now worthy of expectation. DeSmith is quickly transitioning from surprise to routine.
Considering how the Pittsburgh Penguins have treated their starting goaltenders on the ice for the past four seasons including this one, being the anointed number one netminder is like being selected as a sacrificial lamb. Perhaps DeSmith should remind his ‘mates that he is just the backup.
In 2015-16 and 2016-17, starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was blitzed while backup Matt Murray had the easier tasks. Last season isn’t a great measure because the Penguins allowed all goaltenders to face the wrath of their opponents. Despite the Penguins defensive indifference and disorganization last season, DeSmith still posted the best numbers of all Penguins goalies.
In 14 games last season, DeSmith posted a similar .921 save percentage and 2.40 goals against average. Put in context with his work this season, DeSmith’s numbers do not appear to be a fluke.
Most importantly for the Penguins future is how DeSmith is posting superior numbers. DeSmith is showing adjustments and mental toughness. When he was being toasted by breakaways, he went to work. When he turned in a few mediocre performances, he rebounded with a couple straight performances in which he allowed only one goal in regulation and three straight games in which he allowed two goals or less.
Last Thursday, DeSmith admitted to “technical and mental adjustments” on breakaways, after struggling with them for much of the season.
DeSmith’s work Monday was far more impressive than his last couple performances as the Penguins did not dominate the Islanders. DeSmith had to match Robin Lehner’s performance, including in the shootout.
He has come a long way since 13 games for the Wheeling Nailers in 2015-16. From two seasons in the USHL to three-plus years at the University of New Hampshire to the minor leagues. DeSmith’s path has not been easy; it’s been one of a player who lacks the pedigree of his competition for the backup job, Tristan Jarry.
DeSmith has never been the fortunate son. And Penguins starting goalie Matt Murray is nearing his return, so DeSmith will again return to the bench while the Penguins push to resuscitate Murray’s flagging season. But DeSmith’s play has given the Penguins an option and insurance should Murray’s season continue on a sideways trend.
DeSmith is earning the Penguins trust.