In May of 2021, third string goalie Maxime Legace started the Penguins’ final regular season game, due to the first choice goalie Tristan Jarry and backup Casey DeSmith being on the shelf with injuries. Jarry would return for the playoffs that started a week later but play some of the worst hockey of his career against the Islanders. It was a season where Pittsburgh won the division, yet had their year sunk by goaltending.
Fast forward about a year and in April of 2022, it was DeSmith who started the Penguins’ final regular season game, due to Jarry being injured at the time. DeSmith would suffer a season-ending injury himself in Game 1 against the Rangers and third choice goalie Louis Domingue couldn’t do the job in the NHL playoffs. It was a season where Pittsburgh was strong and dominated the Rangers and otherwise deserved to advance, yet again had their year sunk by goaltending.
Fast forward almost another year, and there’s still more drama in the net for the Penguins. Goaltending has been a mostly unsettled and unsatisfying mess for a while now in Pittsburgh when it mattered most. (Curse of the Flower-ino?).
Jarry got pulled from a game for the third time in his last nine outings last night since returning from what is believed to be a recurring and persistent underlying hip injury that has affected much of his season and caused him to miss most of January and February.
Publicly, coach Mike Sullivan isn’t going to go to the injury excuse or divulge any extra information that could benefit a future opponent by confirming a weakness.
Mike Sullivan on Tristan Jarry: "He's fine from a health standpoint. We're trying to get him up to speed here on the fly, and it's a bit of a challenge. We're working at it, trying to get him reps in practice. We're doing our best there."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) March 15, 2023
And while Coach speak isn’t designed to be enlightening, those words still ring hollow at this point of the process and season. Jarry has been back since February 20th, he’s played nine games since returning. Some of those games have even been very good — like when he stopped 49 of 52 total shots against Nashville and St. Louis en route to two wins — was up with the speed of the game back then.
Lately, it hasn’t been going Jarry’s way. He was terrible and gave up four goals to lowly Columbus and got pulled. He melted down against the Islanders with a couple of weak goals deep into the game. Give him credit for playing well against the Rangers on Sunday, an important win and performance that he followed up by...giving up four goals quickly to lowly Montreal and getting pull.
The lack of consistency is maddening. The growing split in being unable to get back to good is starting to become a major storyline of the season. Jarry’s season has been a tale of two halves, with shockingly poor results as of late.
Jarry’s 2022-23 season
|Feb 20- current||9||4||2||1||0.863||4.01||-5.39||3|
*Not counting the Winter Classic, where he left the game due to injury and not poor performance
A lot of the critique of Ron Hextall’s job performance has centered around Jeff Carter and the bottom-six forward contracts he’s shuffled in and out as well as circling Brian Dumoulin as the poster boy for defensive woes. None of these points are unfair and they have all contributed to major team-building issues. It shouldn’t be forgotten that another key Hextall tenet was betting once again this season on the Jarry and DeSmith combo, even though they have let the team down via injury or performance in both of the last two seasons.
There is scarcity in supply for quality defenders or centers around the league, but that doesn’t apply to netminders. Via free agency or trade, playoff contending teams from Colorado, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Vegas, Toronto, Edmonton and Minnesota have found new starting goalies in the last 12 months (albeit to varying results of good and bad outcomes). Hextall and the Pens weren’t among that fluid mix of finding a new goalie(s), choosing instead to extend DeSmith and not participate in the trade market.
It hasn’t been all bad — DeSmith has a .914 save% over this same period of time when Jarry has struggled to give Pittsburgh at least one viable option in net. DeSmith wasn’t as strong when he temporarily took over as the go-to goalie in Jarry’s absence earlier in the year, but he has played to a decent level and played well to give the team a chance in recent games against Columbus and Montreal where Jarry got the quick hook.
And yet, marching into the playoffs with DeSmith and a shaky Jarry doesn’t measure up well against the rest of the pack. The Pens’ season may yet be again defined by goaltending and an even bigger challenge for Sullivan than dealing with Carter and Dumoulin is going to be trying to find a way to coax out better performances from a possibly-less-than-100% Jarry who doesn’t seem to have it physically or mentally within him right now to deliver.
In a season fraught with challenges and having to live with the outcomes of managerial decisions, the performance of Jarry will be a huge part of the success or lack thereof for the Penguins again this spring. Now more than ever, the situation is looking as uncertain but frighteningly familiar for a team that can’t rely on the most important position on the ice.
Now eight points back of the Rangers with two games in Manhattan coming up, the Penguins are less looking like challengers to get out of a Wild Card spot as they could have been only days ago, and now more like a team just trying to build a base and start from scratch.
Who should start tomorrow against the Rangers?
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