PITTSBURGH — A couple of weeks ago, his Pittsburgh Penguins mired in a miserable opening month, somewhat because of his below-the-line performances, Tristan Jarry did what a franchise goalie should. He owned it and said, “I have to be better.”
And he was … until Tuesday night.
This is not to suggest the Penguins’ 5-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils at PPG Paints Arena was entirely the fault of Jarry.
Their power play gave up more goals than it scored. Evgeni Malkin, a day removed from missing practice because of an illness, was held without a point or a shot on goal. Members of their third and fourth lines were a combined minus-8. The Penguins committed seven more giveaways and won six fewer faceoffs than did the Devils.
Tough to blame Jarry for any of the above, and coach Mike Sullivan flatly denied having any concern about his goalie’s consistency following this loss.
“I don’t think this one’s on Jars,” Sullivan said, correctly noting the Penguins were sloppy in many areas.
Sullivan made sure to say a few times after this loss that, “We just weren’t good enough.”
No, the Penguins weren’t.
But neither was Jarry, who finished a game with a sub-.900 save percentage for the fifth time this season — and he was right at .900 in the Penguins’ previous win against the Blue Jackets in Columbus.
Save percentage is not the be-all/end-all of goaltending statistics. It can be misleading, like any metric.
Still, Jarry’s save percentage is below .900 in 23 of his 59 appearances dating to the start of last season. He’s also earned five shutouts over that span, including three this season.
He’s consistently inconsistent, and these Penguins probably aren’t good enough to overcome the Jekyll-and-Hyde ways of Jarry. Not if they are going to again become a Stanley Cup playoff club.
Less than a week from Thanksgiving, a traditional line of demarcation for postseason-bound clubs in the NHL’s salary-cap era, the Penguins not only don’t currently hold a playoff spot, but they just allowed a Devils squad missing their three best forwards — Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Timo Meier — to pass them in the Eastern Conference wild-card standings.
Not good, especially when considering the Penguins are 2-6-1 against the Devils over the past three seasons.
“Every game is different in different ways,” Jarry said. “It’s just managing the game.
“Obviously, we have to figure a way to beat these guys.”
Jarry was on point with that answer. If only he had been on the mark for either of the Devils’ first three goals.
He wasn’t, and their second sure seemed to take the life out of his club.
Nathan Bastian’s first goal this season came 38 seconds after Bryan Rust’s second of this game had staked the Penguins a 2-1 lead early in the second period. Neither Bastian’s rebound goal nor Curtis Lazar’s five-hole score late in the opening period will find their way onto Jarry’s season highlights reel.
“Just a two-on-one. He’s either got the shot or pass, and I think (Kris Letang) slides and he’s able to shoot it five hole,” Jarry said of Lazar’s goal.
Shot had a fricken Lazar beam on it. pic.twitter.com/pObcJP2kNa
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 17, 2023
As for what transpired before Bastian scored?
“They just put a soft puck on net,” Jarry said. “It’s spinning like crazy. It goes off my blocker. I make another save. It ends up bouncing off the back post, and I wasn’t able to get there.”
Bass Pro Shot gets us level. pic.twitter.com/H8SitavfU2
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 17, 2023
To be clear, Jarry was not absolving himself of responsibility for either goal. He was merely detailing his view of each sequence after being asked specifically about both.
Could he have made either stop? Probably. Should he have made either stop? Most likely. Has he made similar stops before? Definitely.
Therein lay the issue.
Jarry, since ascending to the No. 1 goalie role for the 2020-21 season, has made his share of big saves. He’s also shown, in spurts, that he has top-10 potential.
However, it’s also become a guessing game as to which version of Jarry is going to take the crease for the Penguins.
Case in point: Jarry stopped 79 of 81 shots over three games before allowing eight goals over the last two games. During a five-game run in October, his save percentage was .870 and he allowed 15 goals despite blanking the Colorado Avalanche at home during that span.
It’s becoming a fool’s errand to guess what Jarry is going to give the Penguins in any given game. That surely isn’t how general manager Kyle Dubas envisioned things working out when he bet big on Jarry with a five-year contract during the offseason.
If Dubas isn’t a little bit worried about the early returns on the investment in Jarry, who comes with a $5.375 million cap hit, that would be a surprise. The same probably goes for Sullivan, though he’s never been one to publicly call out his players.
To be fair, he could have called out quite a few on Tuesday night. Aside from Rust, captain Sidney Crosby, and Erik Karlsson, none of the Penguins were particularly impressive. The third defense pairing was downright dreadful.
“We just didn’t hold onto pucks enough, create enough offensive zone time, and just didn’t have the spark they had,” Crosby said. “They outplayed us.”
Hey, it happens, which is why NHL clubs get 82 of these games to determine their postseason fate.
The Penguins had won five in a row, so they were due for a clunker. Yet, after a 3-6-0 start to the season, they’re still playing catchup in an apparently deep conference. Their schedule for the rest of this month looks daunting, at least on paper.
Basing anything on one Tuesday night in November is ridiculous. Remember, the Penguins were comfortably in a playoff spot on New Year’s Day and ended up missing out on last postseason.
What’s worrisome is that their streak of 16 consecutive postseasons ended in no small part because their go-to goalie wasn’t very dependable in the final months of last season. Injuries limited him to 23 games, and his save percentage in those contests was .899.
Jarry, a two-time All-Star, is better than a sub- or near-.900 save-percentage goalie. He’s shown it.
The Penguins need him to show it again, and keep it up.
(Photo of Penguins’ Ryan Graves, Devils’ Dawson Mercer and Penguins’ Tristan Jarry: Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)