Penguins’ Casey DeSmith answers call with shutout of Sabres
BUFFALO, N.Y. — While the Pittsburgh Penguins have been putting together a late-season surge the last few weeks, winning five of six games coming into Thursday night, they had a 6-foot-4 insurance policy standing behind them.
Goalie Matt Murray had made nine consecutive starts and was playing some of his best hockey of the season.
Coach Mike Sullivan decided to give Murray the night off as the Penguins faced the Buffalo Sabres, so a new test presented itself.
Would the Penguins be able to keep up their fine form with backup Casey DeSmith in net?
The answer was yes.
Making his first start since Feb. 21, DeSmith made 26 saves to record his third shutout of the season and lead the Penguins to a 5-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
“I think you just gotta go for it,” DeSmith said. “That’s what I talked about tonight, just going in there and going for it. Don’t overthink. Just simplify everything. Play fast. Play my own game. Don’t try to do anything different because I haven’t played in a while. I think I was able to do that tonight.”
The Penguins, who have won three in a row, kept pace with the top teams in the Metropolitan Division, staying four points behind first-place Washington and two points behind the second-place Islanders with 11 games to go.
They moved six points ahead of Montreal and Columbus, who are tied for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“The team’s been playing awesome, obviously, and they didn’t do anything different tonight,” DeSmith said.
Coming off high-stakes victories over Boston and Washington in their previous two games, the Penguins didn’t play an emotionally charged style in the first period-plus Thursday.
That’s when DeSmith was at his best. Most notably, about four minutes into the second, he stabbed at a Conor Sheary shot from the doorstep with his glove to keep the game scoreless. The Penguins soon took over the game with three second-period goals.
“He made some big saves at key times for us that gave us a chance to keep the lead and gave us a chance to get our legs going,” Sullivan said.
The Penguins seemed to find something on the power play late in Tuesday’s win over Washington after Sullivan reunited his team’s star-studded top unit. It scored on two of its last three chances in that game.
The Penguins converted on two of their first three power-play chances Thursday, as well.
On the first goal, they made a tic-tac-toe passing play down low — from Jake Guentzel with his back to the goal in the slot to Sidney Crosby in the right faceoff circle to Kessel at the left dot to make it 1-0 less than seven minutes into the second.
On the second goal, Crosby made a cross-ice pass to Kessel at the bottom of the left circle, and Patric Hornqvist backhanded a deflected centering pass over goalie Carter Hutton to make it 3-0.
“When we’re playing our best hockey, it’s hard to stop us out there,” Hornqvist said. “We move the puck really quick. You see the first goal there, Sid and Phil just picked them apart. When those kind of players get that kind of time, they can do that. Right now, it’s clicking for us.”
In between Kessel and Hornqvist’s goals, Evgeni Malkin fed Brian Dumoulin for a goal on a top-corner shot from the slot. Nick Bjugstad and Jake Guentzel scored in the third period.
“I think we knew we needed to pick it up,” Dumoulin said. “First period was almost feeling each other out, kind of. The second period, I thought we did a good job of staying focused and ratcheting it up.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .