The Pittsburgh Penguins thought goaltending would be a strength. And rightfully so. Matt Murray was a brick wall who won two Stanley Cups before his rookie was over. Casey DeSmith was a late-blooming goalie perfectly suited for backup duty while high-pedigree goalie Tristan Jarry continued to build some hate and polish his game in the AHL.
But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
While there were legitimate questions about Murray after last season, few thought he would lose his game and confidence before Thanksgiving. The Penguins desperately need their franchise goalie or at least a reasonable facsimile.
The maligned glove hand of Murray has given way to general maladies of technique breakdowns, five-hole goals, and even a few cases of losing angles. Murray, who is 6-foot-4, has at times played deep in the net and small as his confidence eroded.
However, without the franchise version of Murray, dominos are falling. Murray’s struggles have added more pressure on DeSmith, who has held the fort to this point, but the 27-year-old goaltender with a total of 30 games of NHL experience has been shaky lately even as his final numbers look solid.
Statistically, DeSmith has a .667 quality start percentage. Over .600 is classified as good. DeSmith also has a 5.6 goals-saved-above-average rating. For comparison, Murray was in negative territory last season and again this season.
DeSmith has stopped all of the shots he is supposed to stop. But, making one more save has been an issue for DeSmith. Breakaways have especially been an iceberg. DeSmith allowed goals on two of three breakaways, Saturday.
“One out of three is not good enough. Two out of three. You’d like to have three out of three,” said DeSmith. “Keep working on it.”
Why the Penguins allowed three breakaways in a game is an entirely different matter. Why the Penguins could not handle the Philadelphia Flyers, who are in self destruct mode is also another matter.
But, the Penguins needed an extra save. So often this season, they have needed one more save. Desperately.
To that extent, it’s unfair to ask DeSmith for too many big saves. DeSmith is an inexperienced professional and backup goalie. A save percentage around .922 should be just fine. In fact, that save percentage should put him in great company. But it’s not enough for the Penguins. Not enough with this maddeningly inconsistent Penguins team.
“It’s just two losses,” DeSmith responded PHN after the loss to Philadelphia. “I don’t think it’s time for everybody to get super frustrated again.”
The Penguins needed a bailout. The time for taking positives from their play is at an end. They need points. There are four teams between them and a playoff spot.
Tristan Jarry, 23, similarly has 29 games of NHL experience. After a very good game against Boston last week, he looked not ready for primetime against Colorado, Wednesday.
Jarry, 6-foot-2, is a larger goalie but plays with small goalie athleticism. And that movement can be his undoing. Against Colorado last Wednesday, Jarry looked scrambly. He tried to play deep in the net and was burned.
One or both of DeSmith or Jarry could become NHL starting goaltenders…eventually. But neither is ready for that awesome responsibility, right now. Certainly not behind the Jekyll-Hyde Penguins.
Reports last week indicated the Penguins had at least kicked the tires on Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard. However, Detroit is one of the four teams between the Penguins and the playoffs, and Howard is their only capable goalie. In other words, Detroit has every reason to not deal the 35-year-old goalie or at least ask for a hefty price.
The team is looking to goaltenders to save them from themselves. For years, the Penguins have had that luxury. A bad pinch on the wall, a giveaway at the red line, or the irresistible challenge to go for broke with firewagon hockey against an opponent dumb enough to try it left Penguins goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray exposed but they were up to the challenge.
The superior goaltending made the talented Penguins look even better. But now things have changed. Those extra saves are needed not to preserve wins but stay in games.
It’s unfair, but that’s now the reality. The team needs help. And GM Jim Rutherford obviously knows that, too. The wily veteran GM has been on top of the situation all season.
Nothing has gone right for the Penguins yet this season, least of all their starting goaltender fighting injury and the puck. The disheveled Penguins are sending an S.O.S. to their goalies. Murray, DeSmith or Jarry will need to answer soon, or Rutherford needs to provide additional choices.