In a 56-game season, each game has a little more urgency. That’s been reflected in the decisions made by the Penguins coaching staff so far, where slow starts have led to quick lineup adjustments.
After a debut that saw him on the ice for one goal-against and in the penalty box for another, defenseman Cody Ceci, signed to a one-year deal in the offseason, sat in favor of Chad Ruhwedel when the Penguins took on the Flyers for a second time Friday.
So when goaltender Tristan Jarry took the loss in both of those contests, allowing a total of nine goals on 33 shots, it wasn’t much of a surprise that backup Casey DeSmith, who fared better after replacing Jarry just 9:12 into game two, got the call for Sunday’s home opener against the Washington Capitals.
“We just thought it was the best decision for the group for this game,” said head coach Mike Sullivan, adding that he’s had a couple of conversations with the 25-year-old who became the Penguins’ new starting netminder over the offseason.
“I think it’s going to give Tristan an opportunity to reset his mindset, get a couple of workouts with [Mike Buckley], our goalie coach, and I think that’ll be good for Tristan. We’ll take each game as it comes and we’ll try to make those decisions as best we can.”
Starting his first game since March of 2019, DeSmith made the most of his opportunity. He benefited from the Penguins carrying the play for two of three periods Sunday; after a first period that saw them chasing the puck, and falling behind 2-1 on the scoreboard, they controlled it in the second and third.
But DeSmith also made the saves they needed him to make, particularly in the shootout, where he shut down offensive stars T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Evegni Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin. The Penguins’ Jake Guentzel, an offensive star in his own right, scored the only goal of the shootout to give Pittsburgh the 4-3 win, its first of the season.
“[DeSmith] was real solid in the shootout; he made some big saves for us,” Sullivan said. “That’s what our expectations are of our goaltenders, and when you get the timely save, it gives your team a better chance to win. He did that for us today.”
“The only thing I was really focused on was getting a win,” DeSmith said. “The first period, they got two on me, so I’m just happy I could battle back the rest of the game. The team played great the next two periods and even better in overtime, and then [Guentzel] helped me out.”
Also making the most of his opportunity was defenseman Juuso Riikola. When Riikola took the spot of offseason trade acquisition Mike Matheson Sunday, it looked like another example of the Penguins sending a message about how a player needs to perform to stay in the NHL lineup, even if they did make a significant investment – $4,875,000 over each of the next six seasons with a modified no-trade clause, to be exact – in the 26-year-old Matheson.
As it turned out, Matheson wasn’t a healthy scratch, but sidelined with an upper-body injury that Sullivan called “longer-term.” But that doesn’t detract from Riikola’s play, which was so solid that he found himself moving up from the third pair to the second midway through the contest.
“We felt in order to get a spark for our blue line, that we had to move some guys around, so that was why the decision was made there,” Sullivan said. “We had some guys that we felt were playing pretty well; we had others we felt we needed more from.”
“I don’t think me and Johnny [Marino] had a particularly good start, so a change was good,” said defenseman Marcus Pettersson, who moved to third-pair duty with Ruhwedel. “I think that was the wake-up call on the back end, and we certainly played a lot harder and better from there.”
The Penguins also got a spark via goals from three unlikely sources – Evan Rodrigues, filling in on the top line with Sidney Crosby and Guentzel as they wait for Kasperi Kapanen to join the lineup post-quarantine; fourth-liner Colton Sceviour; and Pettersson.
“It’s [an opportunity] I’m trying to take advantage of,” Rodrigues said. “But, at the end of the day, I’m just trying to help the team win in any way possible. Jake and Sid are elite players, and I’m trying to find open ice and get open for them and win my battles in the corner and get them the puck. I thought the last two games we played really well and created some momentum for our team.”
Evan Rodrigues scored 19 seconds into the first period, the fastest goal from the start of a game this season (previous: 0:21 by Matt Dumba Saturday w/ MIN).
It all added up to the Penguins’ first two points of the season, and a 1-2 record feels a lot different than 0-3.
“I think it’s a big difference,” Sullivan said. “The importance of these games each and every night is critically important, given the shortened, condensed schedule; we’ve had that discussion on a number of occasions.
“There’s a heightened importance on every game we play. We’re trying to establish ourselves in the standings, and we come out of the first couple of games without any points. I thought we played better than the results we got, but that’s hockey and sometimes that happens. We just had to make sure that we responded the right way today, and to get two points was important for our team. I’m happy for our players. I think that should give them a boost of confidence.”