by Nick Hart
Playoff hockey has a way of supplying its fans with absurd stories year after year. Casey DeSmith’s rocket-like ascension to the starting role for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the Calder Cup Playoffs may have been the most unbelievable the AHL had to offer last postseason.
With limited starts to his name with the Wheeling Nailers in the ECHL, the 24-year-old rookie got called up to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on a professional tryout contract late in the season. The stranglehold he put on the Penguins’ net from that moment forth was more than enough to earn himself his first AHL contract, a deal he just signed this week.
It took DeSmith longer than he would have liked to get his big break, especially when one considers that he didn’t play for any team in any league the year before, but he made sure to enjoy the ride once he was in the spotlight.
“You’ve always got to stay with it,” DeSmith said. “You know, I faced adversity at the beginning of the year, kind of not playing as much as I wanted and down in Wheeling and stuff like that. But I was able to stick with it, and then when I got my chance just tried to take advantage and have some fun with it.”
Fun certainly would be an easy way to describe his unlikely run. The PTO rookie backstopped the Penguins for three-straight games to close out the season while Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry were positioned in Pittsburgh. He was the goalie manning the crease for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton through its first round sweep of the Providence Bruins.
As the Bruins felt the cold presence of elimination creeping behind their backs, they dumped loads of pressure on the Penguins only to be stymied by an unprecedented performance by DeSmith. The rookie set Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s franchise record for saves in a playoff game, turning aside 59 shots in the series clinching game. He then followed up that performance with a shutout of the Hershey Bears at Giant Center in the first game of the Atlantic Division Final.
All that success (and fun) came while DeSmith was not only trying to fend off doubters waiting for his play to come crashing back down to earth, but it turned out he was battling through a knee injury the entire time, as well. In his exit interview following the Penguins’ postseason run, DeSmith revealed that he was far from comfortable ever since the team’s regular season finale when a Bears player went crashing into DeSmith’s crease.
“I was pretty scared when it first happened, because probably like a month and a half earlier, I tore my hamstring,” DeSmith said. “When I tweaked my knee, I felt the same kind of feeling where I felt like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to be able to play through this.’ Thankfully, the trainers here did an awesome job taping me up every single practice, every single game, rehabbing it when it needed to be rehabbed and taking me to the doctor, all that. I owe the trainers a lot for getting me through that.”
A deserved shoutout to Penguins trainers Kyle Moore and Rob Tagle, but don’t let DeSmith’s willingness to credit those around him fool you. He pushed the Penguins as far as they went in the playoffs because of how well he played in net. He earned his first AHL contract because of how well he played in net. And after he rests his knee and returns for another season of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton hockey, DeSmith will once again try and write another chapter in his amazing story by playing well in net.
“If you told me I’d be where I was [in the playoffs] back at the start of the year, wow… I probably would be pretty shocked,” DeSmith said. “I wouldn’t believe you. But yeah, I came a long way since where I was in September, even actually December I don’t think I still was really playing much. So it’s a privilege to be able to play as much as I did towards the end of the year.”
Casey, the privilege is all ours.