If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to have a chance to do anything in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (assuming, of course, they still make them) their starting goalie is going to have to play a major role in that.
Perhaps even the biggest role of anybody else on the roster. That is usually true for most teams come playoff time, but it might be especially true for this group.
Given the way things have gone the past two postseasons, and especially in the second half of the season, that might not be the most encouraging development.
But we saw on Thursday night a version of Tristan Jarry that might offer some faint hope that maybe, just maybe, he can get back to the level of play we have seen at times over the past two regular seasons. You can downplay his 28-save shutout in a 2-0 win over the Nashville Predators by accurately pointing out that Predators roster was closer to an American Hockey League lineup than an NHL lineup given their recent trades and injury issues.
That would be fair.
But that same Nashville team just went into Boston the other night and beat the Presidents’ Trophy winning Bruins and has held its own since the trade deadline, at least finding a way to hang around in the Western Conference playoff race.
You could also downplay it by arguing that the Penguins again carried the play at 5-on-5 and held a massive advantage in shots on goal, shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger scoring chances, expected goals and pretty much every objective measure of possession.
They did what they were supposed to do and dominated a shorthanded, undermanned roster. Even with that Jarry still had to make some big saves on a couple of breakaway and odd-man rushes, especially when the game was still scoreless.
He did what he needed to do to keep his team in it while the other goalie at the opposite end of the ice, Jusse Saros, was putting on a show in the Nashville net.
It is the type of game that not only makes you think he might be able to help the Penguins pull off a stunning upset, but that he is also their only logical option for a starting goalie next season.
We just have not seen it consistently enough lately for one reason or another.
Jarry has been injured multiple times over the past calendar year, and he has gone through some major struggles and been pulled more times than is acceptable over the past month as he continues to try and work his way back. Are those struggles the result of him not being 100 percent healthy? Entirely possible. Are they the result of him being what he is: A mid-level goalie that will go through hot streaks and cold streaks and not really be consistently great? Also possible. Is it a combination of both factors? Absolutely possible. Also quite likely.
But I think this fact still remains: Tristan Jarry IS the Penguins’ best chance in net, and his health and ability to play at even a reasonably high level will make-or-break whether or not this particular team with this particular roster A) makes the playoffs, and B) is able to be even remotely competitive against Boston or Carolina (though, I suddenly do not hate their chances against Carolina).
His backup, Casey DeSmith, has played well in short stretches and received a big push to get more playing time given his recent improved play and the recent struggles of Jarry. But this is not a serious option in my view. DeSmith is a backup for a reason, and we have seen that play out repeatedly over the past two years where the more he plays, the worse he plays. Tuesday’s game against Detroit was the latest bucket of cold water to be thrown in that direction.
Jarry remains a complete wild card for this season, and I still do not know if the Penguins’ starting goalie for next season is in the organization. The goalie depth needed addressed after the 2021-22 season, and they might need to address even more with it this offseason. But you can not go back in time to fix that mistake and there is nothing you can do about next season when this season is still taking place. That leaves you with your two current options.
Jarry remains the best of those two and hopefully a game like Thursday is what he needed to get his season back on track. When he has been healthy, he has been very good. If he can recapture that level of play from the first half of the season the Penguins might at least have something of a fighting chance.