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Ron Cook

Ron Cook: If Tristan Jarry can't go, Penguins have no hope for postseason success

I should have learned a long time ago not to write off the Penguins' chances of winning a championship without any one player but Sidney Crosby. Before and during the 2017 playoffs, I predicted three different times they couldn't win the Stanley Cup without an injured Kris Letang. Of course, they won the Cup.

Well, I'm back at it again.

No one has ever accused me of being a quick study.

The Penguins will have no chance — zero — of competing for a championship this spring without a healthy, on-top-of-his-game Tristan Jarry.

Good luck with that.

Jarry is hardly fragile. He played for the first time in a month in Game 7 in the first round against the New Rangers last spring on a broken right foot. The Penguins lost, 4-3, in overtime, but no one could question his toughness. His injury was so bad he probably wouldn't have been able to play in the second round if the team had advanced.

But Jarry's long list of injuries has become a concern. In the past 10 months, he has had three injuries that have forced him to miss significant time. There was that fractured foot against the New York Islanders on April 14. There was an upper-body injury against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2 that forced him to miss seven games. Now, there is an upper-body injury that is expected to keep him out of his third consecutive game Tuesday night when the Penguins play Colorado at PPG Paints Arena.

The only good news about Jarry came Sunday when Ron Hextall said he doesn't think Jarry's current injury is long-term.

This latest problem came as a surprise to Mike Sullivan, who, after the morning skate on Jan. 24, announced Jarry as his starter for the game that night against Florida. But Jarry was scratched after he showed up at the rink. Casey DeSmith said he found out five minutes before the game that he was starting.

Now Jarry is getting hurt on his way to work?

Does Jarry, who is in a contract year, have the worst luck or what?

Jarry's problems go back to when he was injured shortly before the 2021 first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders. He missed practice time and lost his edge. He played all six games in the Penguins' series loss but was ineffective, to put it kindly. It is not unreasonable to think the team could have won a series or two if he had been sharp.

Jarry's foot injury last season definitely cost the Penguins a chance to advance past the Rangers. After DeSmith was injured late in Game 1, the team had to turn to third-stringer Louis Domingue. You remember "spicy pork and broccoli," right? Domingue helped the Penguins to a 3-1 lead in the series before running out of gas and turning into, well, Louis Domingue, losing Games 5 and 6. Jarry, on one leg, came up just short in Game 7.

The fact the Penguins extended the Rangers to seven games with Domingue convinced Hextall the team still was capable of winning in the postseason with a healthy Jarry. That's why he kept his core players together by signing Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell to long-term contracts.

Now, a lot of hockey people are wondering if Hextall made the right call with a team that is struggling to make the playoffs for the 17th consecutive season.

Everyone from Hextall to Mike Sullivan to Crosby has complained about the Penguins' inconsistency. But a big reason for their problems has been the result of not having Jarry on too many nights. He and the team have been really good when he has played — a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average and .921 save percentage, sixth-best in the NHL. I would put him in the top 8-10 goaltenders in the league. I still believe the Penguins need to sign him to a long-term deal, although his injury history is troubling. Good goaltenders are so hard to find.

DeSmith's stats have been mostly awful — a 7-10-4 record with a 3.35 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage. No one on the team has been so inconsistent. He was outstanding against Washington on Jan. 26, for instance, and bad against Ottawa on Jan. 18. He was good against Carolina on Jan. 14 and horrible against Vancouver on Jan. 10 when he was benched for third-stringer Dustin Tokarski after giving up three goals on five shots. He has given up at least five goals in three of his past four starts.

DeSmith also has been haunted by injuries. He wasn't available after Game 1 against the Rangers because of a right groin injury or for the 2021 playoffs because of a left groin injury. It was surprising Hextall brought him back this season, although DeSmith came cheap — a two-year, $3.6 million deal. It won't be surprising if Hextall tries to do better than DeSmith at the March 3 trade deadline.

So here I go one more time:

The Penguins won't win in the playoffs this season with DeSmith. Their only hope is Jarry.

Some people just never learn.

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