Who? Fates of some NHL teams in hands of role players
Casey DeSmith keeps insisting the NHL playoffs are no different than any other game he’s ever played in his life.
The Pittsburgh goaltender believes his job when he skates onto the ice at Madison Square Garden ice on Tuesday night when the Penguins open their first-round matchup with the New York Rangers is no different than it is at any other time of the season, at any other time of his hockey life.
Stop the puck when it comes your way. Keep your team in it. Don’t let one mistake morph into another. Pour everything you can into making sure you’re not on the wrong side of the post-series handshake line.
To DeSmith, it doesn’t matter that he hasn’t appeared in a postseason game in five years, when 3,608 people watched his Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins fall to the Providence Bruins in Game 5 of the first round of the 2017 AHL playoffs. It’s still just hockey. Right?
“I think as soon as you start to try and make it bigger than it is, problems start to happen mentally,” he said.
It’s a great approach — in theory. Yet when the puck drops, especially if it’s your first foray into the unique crucible that the playoffs provide, it is different. At least at first blush.
“Those first 10 minutes sometimes feel like it’s the fastest game you’ve ever played in your life,” Nashville veteran defenseman Roman Josi said. “After that, you kind of settle in and you just play hockey and I think that’s important in the playoffs.”
DeSmith is hardly the only player improbably thrust into the spotlight as the chase for the Stanley Cup begins. Both conferences feature players with unremarkable resumes who could have an outsize impact on the outcome.
An injury to top goaltender Frederik Andersen forced Metropolitan Division champion Carolina to turn to Antti Raanta. Raanta shined in a 5-1 win over Boston on Monday night, but if he struggles at some point, rookie Pyotr Kochetkov (3-0 regular season) is the Hurricanes’ next option.
Then again, maybe playoff experience is overrated.
Jordan Binnington helped St. Louis to the franchise’s only championship in 2019. He started Game 1 of the Blues’ series with Minnesota on the bench while Ville Husso and his career 53 starts went to work in net and made 37 saves in a 4-0 shutout over the Wild.
At least there is an established hierarchy in Pittsburgh, Carolina and St. Louis. Not so much in Washington, which has Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek against top-seeded Florida.
The duo’s combined career playoff wins?
“They’re younger, but I believe in both of them,” top-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “They have pretty good games, but it’s not about them. It’s about us, how we’re going to help them.”
In Minnesota, 21-year-old rookie forward Matt Boldy made his playoff debut on Monday playing alongside Kevin Fiala just a few months after being called up from the minors. Part of Boldy’s role will be making sure linemate Kevin Fiala’s scorching April carries over into the postseason.
“(Boldy’s) made, obviously, great strides and progress, not only physically but mentally,” coach Dean Evason said. “He’s a very composed, very calm, very mature person.”
Calming the inevitable jitters is something DeSmith will need to do quickly if he doesn’t want Pittsburgh’s 16th straight postseason appearance — the longest active streak in major North American professional sports — to turn into a potentially franchise-altering one-and-done.
All the 30-year-old career NHL backup has to do is help make sure the Penguins avoid a fourth consecutive early exit, prop open the championship window for the venerable core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a little longer or at the very least keep Pittsburgh in it until injured All-Star Tristan Jarry — out since April 15 with a lower-body injury — is ready to go.
Oh, and he has to potentially outplay Vezina Trophy candidate Igor Shesterkin, who limited the high-flying Penguins to four goals in four meetings during the regular season.
No pressure or anything.
The Penguins are longshots to reach the Stanley Cup Final, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, and were largely uninspired down the stretch despite the steady play of DeSmith, who went 8-3-3 with a 2.44 goals-against average after the All-Star break.
So DeSmith will do what he has had to do since signing with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers nearly seven years ago: attempt to prove the skeptics wrong.
“If you don’t have a battle mindset, I think it’s hard to succeed in the playoffs just because it’s a grind,” he said. “It’s such a battle-oriented environment.”
One that can sometimes turn afterthoughts, role players, or backups into folk heroes or — better yet — champions.
Matt Murray was a rookie in 2016 when he took over for an injured Marc-Andre Fleury. All Murray did was backstop the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups.
It’s far too early to start drawing those kinds of comparisons — particularly not for a team that is 3-13 in its last 16 postseason games — but there is a fearlessness to DeSmith’s approach that could serve him well going forward.
Yes, the lights will be brighter on Tuesday night than they were at the Mohegan Sun Arena half a decade ago. The stakes will be considerably higher. The adrenaline, however, will be familiar.
“I’m grateful for some of my prior playoff experience, (in the minors) or otherwise so hopefully some of that comfortability carries over,” DeSmith said.