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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith cracks code for sports popularity

| Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, 7:15 p.m.
Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith reaches for the puck under San Jose defenseman Matt Hunwick and center Chris Tierney.
Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith reaches for the puck under San Jose defenseman Matt Hunwick and center Chris Tierney.

It's easy to gain universal popularity in sports.

• Never become an NFL offensive coordinator.

That was for you, Todd Haley .

Become a reserve goaltender who rarely plays or a back-up quarterback.

Because whenever starters at those positions screw up, the reaction from a portion of the fan base inevitably is: “PUT THE OTHER GUY IN! HE CAN'T BE WORSE!”

There's a catch, though. There's a specific recipe to gain this unconditional love. You gotta give the masses a little taste, a little sprinkle of what you can do.

Just don't play too much. If you do, you're bound to make a mistake or two.

Enter Penguins goaltender, Casey DeSmith. Pittsburgh's new “Mr. Popularity.”

The rookie goalie has made three consecutive starts for the Penguins, stopping 96 of 100 shots. He's won twice and lost 2-1 Saturday in San Jose.

“I'm playing at a high level right now,” said DeSmith after a 3-1 win against the Hurricanes on Tuesday. “I'm fortunate that it is coming at this time. The atmosphere and the thrill of playing in the NHL and having such a good team in front of me, all those things play a part in me elevating my game.”

Matt Murray was supposed to be the Penguins primary starter all year. Antti Niemi was signed in the offseason to be the back-up.

Unfortunately, Niemi did exactly the opposite of the above formula. The sprinkle of what he could do was more like an oversized mouthful of what he couldn't do.

Namely, stop the puck, so he was jettisoned quickly.

Since then, Murray occasionally has been hurt. Plus, he's been absent because of his father's death. So DeSmith and fellow Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-up Tristan Jarry have split goaltender duties.

Jarry initially got the lion's share of the work. That's a move I wholeheartedly endorsed at the time, and still do.

But Jarry was demoted Wednesday in favor of DeSmith. So the Penguins must feel as if Murray is ready to suit up again, or they want to ride the hot hand of DeSmith until he is.

Penguins goaltending coach Mike Buckley has worked with the 26-year old netminder dating back to his days at University of New Hampshire as DeSmith's position coach. After the win Tuesday, Sullivan said Buckley believes DeSmith is the type of goalie that feeds off a hot streak.

“ ‘Buck' knows these guys better than any of us,” said Sullivan. “We've just liked what we've seen from Casey. He has been really solid. In the games he played in California, he was exceptional. So that's why we made the decision to go with him again (Tuesday), and he was terrific again.”

Penguins history is dotted with “unforeseen hot goalie” stories. Ty Conklin, Johan Hedberg, Patrick Lalime, etc. We've seen it before. And DeSmith has lived it before. So he knows the sudden charm of emerging out of nowhere can be fleeting.

“It's not the first time I've had this experience,” DeSmith said. “I was in Wheeling, not playing. Then I started to play and people started to get excited. Then I moved up to Wilkes-Barre later that year and played in the playoffs and that was great. So I've had this experience a couple times, and I know it doesn't last forever.”

DeSmith lost only two games in 13 appearances in Wheeling. Then, upon his call-up to the AHL, he tallied a 1.94 goals against average in six regular-season starts before posting a 2.44 GAA in the postseason.

Also, DeSmith's story is much more of a long, winding road than it is a comet onto the scene. He was dismissed from UNH before his senior year because of an arrest involving an incident with a former girlfriend. The charges were refuted by witnesses and eventually reduced to a sub-misdemeanor disorderly conduct count.

DeSmith was allowed back in school in good standing, but not brought back to the team.

The ECHL came calling after a year off. Then the AHL. Then one rocky relief appearance in Winnipeg for Pittsburgh when he allowed three goals on 15 shots in his debut this October. A demotion. A recall. One more relief stint where he was better against Toronto in December, but eventually demoted again.

Now he's the flavor of the month.

“I've played worse in my life, for sure,” DeSmith admitted.

Shh, Casey. Don't say that. You'll kill the illusion. Let us think you're Patrick Roy until we have proof you're not.

Or just never have a bad start. It's that easy.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

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