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Penguins notebook: Panthers claim goalie Antti Niemi, thrusting Casey DeSmith into important role

Jonathan Bombulie
| Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, 12:18 p.m.
Penguins goalie Antti Niemi makes a save against the Lightning during the second period Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Tampa, Fla.
Penguins goalie Antti Niemi makes a save against the Lightning during the second period Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Tampa, Fla.

When the Penguins put Antti Niemi on waivers on Monday, they decided to go young at the backup goaltender position.

The events of Tuesday have made it more difficult for them to change their minds.

Niemi was unexpectedly claimed on waivers by the Florida Panthers, who are dealing with an injury to starter Roberto Luongo.

Florida's general manager, Dale Tallon, was GM with Chicago when the Blackhawks signed Niemi as an undrafted free agent in 2008. Luongo suffered an apparent hand injury when he collided with Penguins winger Conor Sheary last Thursday.

The claim was unexpected because of how poorly the 34-year-old Niemi performed in his first three starts with the Penguins. He lost them all, recording a 7.49 goals-against average and .797 save percentage, which led to his being placed on waivers Monday.

After waiving Niemi, the Penguins called up 26-year-old Casey DeSmith from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL on Monday afternoon. DeSmith was on the ice as the Penguins took morning skate Tuesday before a game against the Edmonton Oilers.

DeSmith is the oldest goaltender the Penguins have under contract, three years older than two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray, but the downside of giving him the backup job is obvious.

His NHL experience is minimal, consisting of one period of exhibition action in each of the last two preseasons. This year, he stopped 6 of 8 shots and gave up the overtime winner to Jack Eichel when the Penguins played an exhibition game against Buffalo at Penn State.

Being in an NHL locker room Tuesday morning was an eye-opening experience for DeSmith.

“Walking into the locker room with a swarm of people, not knowing who they're interviewing and it turned out to be me, stuff like that,” he said. “Being in the locker room with incredible talent, some of the best players to ever play the game, little things like that are definitely wow moments.”

The upside, of course, is that DeSmith has performed extraordinarily well since the start of last season.

Last year, he went 21-5-3, led the AHL with a 2.01 goals-against average and was sixth in the league with a .926 save percentage.

He's been just as good this season, giving up a total of three goals while getting off to a 3-0 start, which is a big part of the reason why he got the backup nod over 22-year-old prospect Tristan Jarry.

“That was the main factor,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He's playing extremely well. We think he can help us right now. The other byproduct of that is that is gives someone like Tristan an opportunity to continue to play games and develop his game.”

Josh Archibald, who played with DeSmith in Wilkes-Barre last season, gave his unqualified endorsement to his undrafted 6-foot, 181-pound teammate.

“His athletic ability, his quickness, you look at him and he's not the biggest guy in the world, but he's one of the hardest workers,” Archibald said. “He never takes a game off, never takes a practice off. He's always the hardest worker on the ice. I think that's what's got him to the point he's at right now.”

That's what she said

The paint job on DeSmith's helmet pays tribute to “The Office,” which is set in Scranton. The mask has pictures of the Dunder Mifflin logo and Michael Scott's trademark World's Best Boss coffee mug, among other images.

DeSmith said he hadn't yet picked out a Western Pennsylvania-based sitcom for a future design. “Mr. Belvedere,” anyone?

“My big show is ‘The Office,' ” DeSmith said. “I guess I felt more at home in Scranton.”

Following Sid

While Connor McDavid speaks in reverent tones about Sidney Crosby, he didn't really perk up in his pregame meeting with reporters Tuesday until a slightly different topic was broached.

When it comes to following Crosby's lead, McDavid is most interested in the way the Penguins captain helped turn the team back into a winner.

“We're definitely just trying to mimic anything they've done,” McDavid said. “They've been so successful for a number of years now. Two Stanley Cups back to back, it's pretty impressive. If you can find little piece of their recipe, I think that will help.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com<mailto:jbombulie@tribweb.com>; or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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