Updated 7 hours ago

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith has already cleared one significant hurdle this season.

He overcame his lack of height and prospect pedigree to establish himself as a legitimate NHL goaltender, all but officially beating out second-round draft pick Tristan Jarry for the long-term back-up role behind Matt Murray when he agreed to a three-year contract extension last week.

Now, it’s on to the next.

DeSmith proved himself while carrying a heavy workload as Murray went through early season struggles and eventually spent about a month on the sidelines with a lower-body injury.

From Nov. 7 through Dec. 15, DeSmith started 14 of the team’s 18 games. He helped keep the season from cratering, going 8-5-2 with a .920 save percentage.

Now that Murray seems to have returned to form, DeSmith’s assignments will be less frequent. Since Jan. 1, for instance, he’s started only two of the team’s seven games. He’s lost them both, turning in an .852 save percentage.

The next hurdle is showing he can be effective when his starts are rare.

“It’s a good lesson for me as a back-up goalie,” DeSmith said. “You’ve got to let it go. You should let the last game go regardless, whether you win or lose. I think it’s a helpful thing, almost, to have to move past it and go out there and have a good practice today, a good practice tomorrow. If something happens, I play next game. Maybe I don’t play for three weeks. You just never know, but I have to look at it like the last game I played, whether we won 7-1 or lost 7-1, it’s just another game.”

For a number of reasons, DeSmith probably won’t be looking at many three-week absences in the near future.

There are enough sets of back-to-back games sprinkled throughout the schedule – the Penguins are in the midst of one this weekend in Arizona and Vegas – to make sure DeSmith won’t sit idle too long.

Also, coach Mike Sullivan has said on a number of occasions that DeSmith’s body of work in the first half of the season is strong enough that it warrants playing time moving forward.

The fact that Murray has been injury prone gives Sullivan one more reason to make sure DeSmith sees at least a moderate workload.

The 27-year-old goalie is glad for all of that.

“Thankfully, it’s been a week, maybe a week and half, in between games,” DeSmith said. “That’s not something where you’re going to get in a game and feel really uncomfortable.”

While DeSmith knows he has to learn how to maintain his effectiveness while playing infrequently, he views it as just one part of his big-picture maturation as a goaltender.

Despite ranking sixth in the league among qualifying goaltenders with a .921 save percentage this season, DeSmith thinks he still has some growing to do.

“I think I made a lot of saves this year that maybe I wouldn’t have made last year based on making good reads,” DeSmith said. “That’s definitely what’s gotten better for me. That comes along with getting used to the style of play.

“I was talking to a buddy the other day who is a goalie coming out of college into pro hockey. I was like, ‘It’s going to take a second. It’s just a different style of hockey. It’s not college hockey anymore.’ It’s the same thing going from East Coast to the AHL or AHL to the NHL. It takes some getting used to. I think I’m still in that phase of becoming a quote-unquote NHL goalie as far as making reads is concerned.”

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.


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