Just a few days ago, most of the hockey world and more specifically the Penguins’ faithful were up in arms over Brookes Orpik’s reckless hit to the head of defenseman Olli Maatta. Orpik was suspended for three games, which was followed by controversial comments from head coach Barry Trotz and a ton of attention around the topic.
On Monday night, Kris Letang launched himself into the same spotlight. It was a case of terrible judgement on Letang’s part considering the attention around this behavior in this series and now, the Penguins have to pay the price.
Letang’s hit wasn’t as bad as Orpik’s from the perspective of how late it was, as well as the fact that Orpik extended an elbow in what looked like a deliberate attempt at a head shot. I have a hard time imagining that was Orpik’s intent but the video doesn’t lie.
However, Letang did finish a check that was well past the point of impacting the play, made contact with Marcus Johansson’s head and ultimately targeted a player who was in a very vulnerable position. In other words, the exact type of hit the league wants to rid themselves of.
The NHL Department of Player Safety handed down a one-game suspension which will hold Letang out of game four tonight. The Penguins have the opportunity to take a commanding 3-1 series lead but now, they’ll have to do so without their top defenseman. That’s going to pose a serious challenge for this group.
Kris Letang is Irreplaceable
In this situation, there is no ‘next man up’. Letang, arguably a top-five defenseman in the league who plays huge minutes in Pittsburgh, is the driving force behind the Penguins’ success.
He might actually be more important than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when you consider how large his role is.
Through eight postseason games, Letang is averaging over 29 minutes on the ice. When Maatta was injured in game two, Letang was tasked with filling that void and recorded north of 35 minutes time-on-ice or in other words, more than half of that tilt.
He also leads Pittsburgh’s blue line in playoff scoring with seven points, two of which were tallied on the power play. And, those stats may not be the most impressive accomplishment for the dynamic blue-liner in this series.
Letang has played the majority of this series, approximately 24 minutes at even strength, facing the trio of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. In that span, the Penguins account for over 52-percent of shot attempts and they’ve kept the Capitals most prolific line at bay. Oshie exploded with a hat trick in game one but has been quiet since. Ovechkin, with mounting pressure on him as he tries to finally push his Capitals past the conference semi’s, was essentially invisible until period three on Monday night.
Playing the role of engine behind what drives the Penguins while simultaneously shutting down the most dangerous scorer in the league isn’t something you simply replace. The remaining defenders have their work cut out for them.
Is There Any Hope for the Penguins in Game 4?
While things look grim for Pittsburgh, many seem to forget that they’re currently leading this series. They don’t need a spark, nor do they need a lineup change to find success. If it weren’t for a questionable goal call in overtime in game one, they could very well have a 3-0 series lead heading into tonight.
Contrary to popular belief, the Penguins are the better hockey team right now.
When our team is at its best, our defense starts 190 feet from our net with our puck pursuit, hanging onto pucks down low in the offensive zone, controlling territory, and using our foot speed to our advantage. I didn’t think we were able to do that.
The Penguins were the slower team for the first time in months in game three. The players knew it and Sullivan addressed it. Letang is obviously an important pillar in how they play but if they can find a way to control play down low in the offensive zone, keep the Capitals’ defensemen on their heels and create traffic around Holtby, they can survive.
Of course, those are big ‘ifs’.
Chalk me up as cautiously optimistic. One bad decision from Letang may have changed this series, which will head back to Washington tied at two if the Penguins can’t win without his services. I’d hate to see the great story Pittsburgh has written recently get derailed this way. Remember all the talk about how resilient the Penguins are?
It’s time to prove it in what could be a game which marks the beginning of the end to the Capitals President’s Trophy winning season.
Pittsburgh Penguins writer for TheHockeyWriters.Com and PittsburghHockeyNow.Com. Youth hockey coach, and student of the game.