His hockey career might not have progressed at the pace he envisioned. But it’s during times like these Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith can appreciate a deliberate pace.
“Everything,” DeSmith said of the play in front of him lately, “looks just a tad slower.”
That’s what sometimes happens to a goalie when he stops 70 of the past 72 shots he’s faced and has shutouts in two of his past three starts.
Dating to the final Friday of his rookie season last April, DeSmith has shutouts in three of his past seven starts. Considering DeSmith began that season 14 months ago no better than fourth on the depth chart as an undrafted 26-year-old, that’s no small feat.
DeSmith has played the Penguins’ past seven periods, the longest stretch in his brief NHL career during a time while Matt Murray was healthy. With the run DeSmith is on, it would not be surprising if coach Mike Sullivan starts DeSmith on Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils.
DeSmith was an unheralded 24-year-old on an ECHL contract as recently as early 2016.
When DeSmith woke up Sunday morning and found himself at or near the top of the NHL in goals-against average (third, 1.89), save percentage (third, .942) and shutouts (tied for first with two), did he figuratively have to pinch himself?
“Definitely past that,” DeSmith said of any “awe” factor associated, “… because I know the skills that I have, and I have confidence in my game. So even in the East Coast league and then the AHL, when I wasn’t playing, I knew that I could play.
“Every place I’ve been bumped up, I have kind of maintained that confidence. So I kind of got over that little period of, you know, ‘Wow,’ maybe just a little bit faster than everybody else.”
No one is yet suggesting DeSmith is the Penguins’ permanent No. 1 goalie. But his stellar play has made Murray’s recent struggles more of an annoying footnote than the catastrophe they otherwise could be.
“He’s just played well for us,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We don’t have to look back and see who is in (goal). We have confidence in both guys.
“We try to be good in front of them. But (DeSmith) has really been good for us.”
It had been a while since an unproven goalie had to earn the trust of a veteran-laden group. The goalie tandem before last season featured two who each had won a Stanley Cup championship.
So when DeSmith was something of a last resort in January after Cup-winner Antti Niemi bombed, Murray was injured again and former first-round pick Tristan Jarry was struggling, it might have been easy for the Penguins’ skaters to be skeptical. Were they going to feel comfortable relying on an undrafted youngster making his first NHL starts?
With DeSmith’s demeanor, yes.
“From Day One,” wing Bryan Rust said. “He just came in here had a confidence about him that he knew he could get the job done — and you can see that (still) growing.”
Perhaps never moreso than Saturday, when DeSmith stopped all 39 shots in a win against Arizona.
Sullivan declined to name Tuesday’s starter, but he said Murray is still The Man — even as he acknowledged the starter’s struggles. Outside of a swing through Canada in which he was outstanding, Murray is 1-4-1 with a .835 save percentage.
“Every player goes through ups and downs, and Matt is no different,” Sullivan said.
“Matt’s mental toughness and the experiences that he’s gone through, he can certainly draw on in helping him get to where we all know he’s capable of being. And so right now, he’s got an opportunity to spend some time with (goalie coach Mike Buckley) and work on some of the aspects of his game that we think he can help him improve and build his confidence. But this by no means diminishes our faith and our trust in Matt Murray.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.