CRANBERRY, Pa. — Casey DeSmith admitted that he had scoured the schedule a few weeks ago to get an idea of when he might get his first start this season.
With the Penguins playing just 10 games this month, and none of them in a back-to-back situation, the backup goalie figured he might be waiting for a while.
However, sometimes stuff happens.
“Didn’t have a date in mind,” DeSmith was saying after Tuesday’s practice. “It was kind of let’s spend October and get things in order, be able to feel great about my game and when the time comes … and the time comes Thursday.
“Thankfully we’ve been working really hard and I do feel really good about my game. I don’t want to say ‘perfect timing,’ but I feel good about it.”
That’s good for the Penguins because when they do return from their five-day break on Thursday night against the Golden Knights, it will be DeSmith — and not Matt Murray — in goal.
It was a bit of an odd scene when the Penguins took to the ice Tuesday morning in Cranberry. For one, none of the players were on the ice when the previously unscheduled practice was to start at 11 a.m. There were only a handful of fans in the stands at the Lemieux Sports Complex, including the parents of Sidney Crosby.
When the Penguins did file onto the ice shortly before 11:30 a.m., there was one notable absence: Murray.
The starting goaltender has been diagnosed with a concussion after suffering the injury in practice a day earlier, Mike Sullivan confirmed. The coach would not elaborate on exactly how Murray was injured but said that the two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie reported his symptoms following Monday’s 90-minute practice at PPG Paints Arena. He added that there is no timeframe for his return.
“It sucks,” said Kris Letang. “It’s part of the game. We lose a big piece with Matt. Somebody has to rise to the occasion. Casey’s been waiting for that chance, I guess.”
For Murray, who is 1-1 after allowing 11 total goals on 65 shots to the Capitals and Canadiens, it is his third documented concussion in 30 months.
He missed nine games after taking a puck to the head in practice last February. He was also concussed in the spring of 2016 after a collision with Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn forced him to miss the first two games of the playoffs.
Injuries, of course, are nothing new to Murray, who also suffered a knee injury last November that sidelined him for two weeks. He suffered a broken hand during the World Cup of Hockey in September of 2016.
But a concussion is a different matter and it does raise questions about the slightly built, 6-foot-4, 178-pound goalie’s durability.
“It’s really hard to draw any conclusion with this stuff because everyone’s different,” Sullivan was saying. “That’s been my experience in dealing with concussions with different players over the years. Everyone’s different. The nature of these are different. Sometime players bounce back extremely quick and others tend to linger. It’s hard to predict.”
DeSmith went 6-4-0 last season in 14 games (11 starts), while posting a respectable 2.40 GAA and .921 save percentage. The 27-year-old served as Murray’s backup down the stretch and into the postseason last spring. He says that experience was invaluable to him.
“I would say most goalies come into the league and maybe in their minds there’s a little bit of a question mark,” he was telling me. “You’ve never played at this high of a level, the best of the best players out there. Getting 14 games or whatever I played, getting all that experience and getting a lot of success was really important for me confidence-wise, having that belief in myself that I belong here.”
The Penguins did not announce a roster move but it would seem likely that Tristan Jarry will be recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. DeSmith beat out Jarry last spring and again in this year’s training camp to remain with the NHL team.
Jarry, a second-round pick in 2013, is perceived to be the future long-term backup goalie to Murray. He was sent down to Wilkes-Barre in large part to get regular playing time.
Should Murray be out for an extended period, it will be very interesting to see who the Penguins would go with. Sullivan said he was to meet with Jim Rutherford later Tuesday. For now, Sullivan expressed confidence in both goalies.
“We believe in these guys,” Sullivan was saying of DeSmith and Jarry. “They’re young guys but their body of work last year was strong. They won games for us. We believe these guys can make the timely save for us to help us win. It’s times like these where we have to rely on our depth and we believe in the group that we have. I think both Casey and Tristan have shown that they’re NHL-caliber goalies.”
• Sullivan did not change his lines or pairs for Tuesday’s practice, so it would appear that Olli Maatta is the odd-man out on defense. Maatta skated on a fourth pair with Chad Ruhwedel.
Maatta appeared in all 82 games last season and was arguably the Penguins’ most consistent defenseman as he matched his career high in points (29) and established a personal best in assists (22). However, he’s been a minus-3 this season.
“Definitely not good enough,” Maatta said.
• A season ago, the Penguins played more games than they would have liked in the early going of the season following a short summer after their second Cup championship. This year, they have a five-day break just a week into the season. With so much time off, Sullivan wants his team to take advantage of it. That is why they held an on-ice practice instead of a scheduled workout day.
“I think just to have an extra day of reps,” Bryan Rust was saying. “The more things become muscle memory, the easier they’ll be to replicate in games.”