The decision by Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan to start Casey DeSmith on Monday night against the Anaheim Ducks was, from this vantage point, a bit of a surprise.
It is not that DeSmith hasn’t earned playing time with his performance this season — because he certainly has — but it came at a time where everything seemed to be pointing toward Matt Murray getting an opportunity to get back in the crease and start working toward retaking his starting job.
Murray played well enough in his return to the lineup on Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings and made some huge saves in overtime to give the Penguins a chance to pick up the win.
He seems healthy, he played well in his most recent start, the Penguins had a day off between games, and their opponent on Monday was a Ducks team that is among the worst offensive teams in the league (29th in goals per game, 31st in shots on goal per game). Sullivan talked about wanting to put Murray in positions to succeed in his return from injury, and that certainly seemed like a perfect opportunity to get him in the lineup and help him get back into a groove.
Not only that, Sullivan has almost always gone right back to Murray when he is healthy and returns to the lineup.
Instead it was DeSmith that ended up getting the call.
When you put all of those factors together it just seemed ... interesting.
Not saying it was necessarily the wrong call, it just wasn’t what I honestly expected.
Also interesting is the fact that it will be Murray, and not DeSmith, getting the start on Wednesday night against an incredibly hot Washington Capitals team that has been one of the best offensive teams in the league this season and is being driven by a seemingly better than ever Alex Ovechkin.
Obviously both goalies are going to get their share of the playing time right now, especially with another back-to-back situation on Wednesday and Thursday, but in the biggest game of the week against the toughest and most important opponent (in their barn, no less) it is murray that gets the call.
What can we read into that?
Let’s start with the fact this is exactly the start you would expect your starting goalie to get.
Because of that it also feels like a big opportunity for Murray and a huge game for him personally.
It is obvious that for now DeSmith is going to push him and challenge him for playing time until Murray either returns to form and reclaims his status as the clear-cut starting goalie, or until it has become painfully obvious that he is not going to get back to that level. A big game in Washington on Wednesday would be quite a statement from Murray, and definitely one that is needed. Not only for him given his play since the start of the 2017-18 season, but for the Penguins as a team because they are going to need him. Like I said on Monday, if they are going to make any sort of a meaningful run toward the playoffs (and once they get into the playoffs) they are going to need great goaltending to do it. I still think Murray is the one most likely to give them that sort of performance. They just need him to find that consistency.
Wednesday is a great opportunity for him to start making that sort of statement because if he doesn’t you know another strong start from DeSmith on Thursday against a mediocre Wild team probably gets him a lot more playing time in the short-term.