The traditional order of operations is to have a starting goalie and a backup. The No. 1 guy plays between 50 and 60 games, while the backup gets 25 or 30 games through the course of the season. For the last few years, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tristan Jarry have been on that path, at least when health has allowed.
Because of injuries, Jarry never played 60 games, but the model was intact. Coaches rarely, if ever, started Casey DeSmith more than a few games in a row and certainly never played him in seven of nine over a healthy Jarry. Even if DeSmith, who was in town with the Vancouver Canucks Thursday, won a game or two, the “hot hand” principle did not apply.
Because it doesn’t usually apply to backup goalies.
So, Nedeljkovic playing in eight of the last 11 games and starting seven is noteworthy. And it was worth asking Jarry how he feels about the new blue paint timeshare.
Coach Mike Sullivan pulled Nedeljkovic Thursday, but not for performance issues. The Penguins were flatfooted and slow in the first period. Sullivan said he used the goalie swap to give the team a jolt.
Jarry was fantastic from the opening moments of the second period, punctuating a few glove saves with a little bit of panache. He stopped all 17 shots in regulation and 19 of 20 in the 4-3 overtime loss to the Canucks.
PHN delivered the question about the new roles. With clear eyes, Jarry didn’t flinch.
“It’s whoever is getting points (will play). I think (Nedeljkovic) has been playing great, and obviously he’s a great goaltender,” Jary said. “So whoever’s playing well, I think should be playing. And I think that’s just the way it’s been going. And I think he’s done a great job … whether he supports me or I’m supporting him, I think we have a great relationship, and we’re pushing each other.”
It’s not the biggest story nor the flashiest. Eyes have focused on Radim Zohorna and Valtteri Puustinen as potential contributors, only to see them succumb to the learning curves of the NHL. Under the radar has been Jansen Harkins.
Harkins got the first shot at solidifying the third line. In the week before the regular season, the Penguins acquired Harkins via waivers from the Winnipeg Jets, and he came touted as a player with offensive ability based on his numbers in the AHL, which were nearly a point-per-game pace.
However, Harkins quickly washed out in that role and, after four games, cleared waivers to be sent to the WBS Penguins. He’s been a mainstay in the lineup since his late November recall, but only recently has he become a difference-maker. The line with Noel Acciari and Jeff Carter has been drawing top defensive assignments and knocked a few goals, too.
“Harkes has played really well for us. He keeps his game simple. He’s using his speed. He’s getting in on the forecheck,” said Sullivan. “I think his confidence is growing. He’s making a few plays. He’s a big part of that fourth line, and that fourth line has been really important for us.”
Harkins has four points in his last seven games, including an aggressive forecheck then backcheck in the first period Thursday night. Harkins made a trio of hustling plays on the puck to get the primary assist when Marcus Pettersson scored from the blue line.
Harkins isn’t earning points because of pretty plays but because he’s using his speed and becoming a terror on the forecheck. He’s adapting his game to fit. He’s already been through the ups and downs, the waivers, and the call-ups with two organizations. While Puustinen is regressing from his exceptional first handful of games, Harkins is figuring it out.
“I mean, (I’m) just kind of playing a simple game right now. I think (I’m) trying to use kind of what I have — speed and some physicality, creating loose pucks and scoring chances that way,” Harkins said. “I think our line has been very solid lately. And I think when you get the consistency up and down (the lineup), it’s easier to find a rhythm.”
It may not be what Harkins imagined his NHL role, but the more important axiom is “forecheck, backcheck, paycheck.” With all of the boxes checked, Harkins is earning an NHL paycheck.