Last year's first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders couldn't have been any less discouraging for Tristan Jarry.
After assuming the No. 1 role for the first time in his career, Jarry carried the Penguins with solid numbers throughout the regular season. Come playoff time, though, Jarry was the direct result of at least a few of the team's losses. The Islanders were a good team, but the Penguins were the favorites after finishing as top dogs in the East Division. Pittsburgh's goaltending faltered when it mattered most.
With a .890 save percentage, minus-6.07 goals-saved-above-average and .814 high-danger save percentage in six outings, Jarry was, by far, the worst goaltender in the playoffs last season, and may have cost his team in a bigger way than we've seen in some time.
The Penguins needed better. And right now, despite injuries to key bodies this season, that's what they're getting out of Jarry.
Jarry is riding a two-game shutout streak with wins against Montreal and Toronto. His record this year isn't anything special at 7-4-0, but his stats have made him one of the league's better starters this season. Among goalies with at least 10 starts, Jarry's .934 save percentage, 1.93 goals-against average, and 21.53 goals-saved-above-average at 5-on-5 put him in the top 10 in all three categories.
"He looks real calm in there," Crosby said. "That's great when you're making big saves, but he looks really calm and that's huge."
Jarry himself said conversations with new GM and former NHL goaltender Ron Hextall helped motivate him to improve, and the results are there. This looks like the Jarry that made moving Matt Murray two summers ago make sense after getting promoted to the team full time in 2019-20. He previously was the backup two years before that, but lost to Casey DeSmith in 2018-19.
Now, Jarry looks confident, relaxed and he's playing his best hockey to date.
“Hexy and I had a lot of conversations over the summer,” Jarry said. “That was something that motivated me. It motivated me to be better, to work harder every day. I knew I’d be coming back. I wanted to prove to them that they weren’t making a mistake.”
Jarry has started 14 of the Penguins’ 17 games, so it's clear coach Mike Sullivan believes in Jarry. And that's good since goaltending has been a fickle issue for about half a decade in Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury saw his play decline near the end of his tenure there and was replaced by a young Murray. But Murray couldn't replicate his playoff success, and Jarry came along. Jarry has finally given the team some stability, and, on all accounts, has been Pittsburgh's early season MVP.
Jarry has been one of the better Canadian goaltenders this season, but that doesn't mean he'll be rewarded for it with an Olympic spot in 2022. As Hockey Unfiltered's Ken Campbell reported, Jarry wasn't one of the players named to the long roster that was required to be submitted to the IIHF and IOC on Oct. 15. That's understandable: by that date, Jarry had just one game under his belt this season, with his most recent on-ice results coming from a disastrous playoff series.
On a personal level, he might wish he had a shot, but Jarry is paid to be an NHLer, and his employer in Pittsburgh is getting great value out of him this year. Per Evolving-Hockey, Jarry's 1.7 wins-above-replacement is good for eighth in the league. No player on the Penguins has above 0.6. It's hard to compare goalies to skaters, but Jarry has been a direct reason why the Penguins have been so competitive despite missing a platitude of players to COVID-19 and various injuries early on in the season.
Is it a mirage? Can Jarry actually hold the fort and keep Pittsburgh in Cup contention this year? It's far too early to say, but it's always nice to see a good bounce-back story. Pittsburgh is still sitting on the outside looking in in the Metropolitan, but it's hard to blame them. The team had eight players and coach Mike Sullivan miss time due to COVID-19 protocols, and Evgeni Malkin hasn't played yet due to a knee injury. So, it's completely understandable.
But the Penguins are starting to get hot, and the return of Sidney Crosby in particular has been a big bonus. But a lot of the focus is on Jarry, who many fans wanted gone in the off-season.
Jarry's plan to get better this year was simple. And, truthfully, he's living up to it.
“Just be better. I wanted to work hard, be a better goalie.”