In 2009, Kris Letang came of age in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Specifically in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Washington Capitals. In Game 3, he scored the overtime winner to get the Penguins back into a series in which they had trailed 2-0 prior. For the series, he would finish with three goals and six points, averaging 21:27 of ice time — his best showing of that postseason.
Fast-forward seven years, and Letang finds himself firmly entrenched in the Norris Trophy debate for the NHL’s best defenseman nearly every season. He has battled through numerous concussions over the course of those seven years, not to mention the mild stroke he suffered in February 2014. He has heard the criticisms of not being a good fit on the power play and of needing to keep his cool when things don’t go his or the Penguins’ way.
Yet here he is. Now 29-years old. He is considered part of the core of this Penguins team. Many will say that he is as invaluable as his captain, Sidney Crosby. Perhaps even more so.
He has matured over these past seven years, but perhaps his biggest growth spurt came earlier this season, when head coach Mike Sullivan pulled him aside on a team charter up to Buffalo after a particularly frustrating game for Letang. Tanger, as his teammates refer to him, became so frustrated after having his stick slashed out of his hands with no penalty called, that his idea of retribution was to take the offending Lightning player’s stick and use it as his own.
That in itself is a penalty, and Letang was called for it. In barking at the officials on his way to the penalty box, he drew another two-minute minor for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Only Letang and Sullivan know what was said in their conversation on that flight to Buffalo. But whatever it was, for Letang, it worked.
Maturing in the Moment
The Penguins had a game against the Buffalo Sabres the very next day.
The impact that Sullivan’s conversation had on Letang the night before could be seen almost instantaneously. Letang had two primary assists and a shorthanded secondary helper, to go along with 28:43 of ice time. That’s good enough to earn himself the game’s #1 star.
In the span of 24 hours, Letang had matured right in front of our eyes.
He had gone from hot head, ready to blow a gasket at the slightest hint of agitation, to a cool, composed defenseman primed to make a run at his first Norris Trophy.
With this mindset, this new-found maturity, Letang has carried along right through the rest of the regular season and the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
For much of this season, he has been considered one of the Penguins’ most indispensable players, if not the most indispensable player on the roster.
Yes, even more so than Crosby and Malkin.
As Letang goes, so go the Pens
Tanger has become the Pens’ big dog of sorts when it comes to eating up minutes on the blue line.
By the end of the regular season, he was playing 30-plus minutes on a seemingly regular basis. Mark Madden of 105.9 The X in Pittsburgh even joked that perhaps next season “the Penguins should experiment with Letang playing a whole game.”
Pittsburgh finished the regular season winning 14 of the final 16 games, which coincided, coincidentally, with Letang’s increase in minutes.
As he goes, the Penguins go.
Right now, Letang is averaging a point per game through the first round. He had a goal and four assists against the Rangers to go along with 27:18 of average ice time. This is good enough for tops on the team, and four and a half minutes more than Trevor Daley, who is second.
He is matched up against every team’s top line 5-on-5, he’s on the top power-play unit and more often than not the first over the boards to kill off a penalty.
If there is a big moment in a game, you can almost take it to the bank that Letang is on the ice for it.
His Time to Shine Brightest
This is the big stage now — where the lights from above will shine the brightest on every single stride, every pass and every shot.
Letang is no stranger to the spotlight. He’s scored some big-time goals in his career. A handful of overtime game winners.
There are none bigger than in 2009 against the Capitals:
You could say that this goal put Letang on the map. At the very least, it put him on the path that he’s been on for these past seven years — the path to being a hall-of-fame defenseman.
This series against the Caps figures to be one of Letang’s career-defining moments.
As stated above, he is matched up against the opponent’s top line more often that not. That means, prior to the inevitable adjustment that Caps coach Barry Trotz figures to make at some point during the first two games, Letang will be on the ice opposite Alex Ovechkin.
Ovechkin is a left-wing, and Letang is a right-side defenseman. The entirety of the hockey world talks about “Sid vs. Ovi” and that’s fair. Crosby figures to be on the ice against Ovechkin as well most of the time. But make no mistake, Letang will be charged with shutting down the most prolific goal-scorer of this generation.
Much has been said and written about the second-coming of the NHL’s dream playoff matchup between the Pens and Caps.
The captains: Sid the Kid vs. The Great 8.
The Russians: Malkin vs. Ovechkin.
The goaltenders: Murray vs. Holtby.
Heck, even the coaches: Sullivan vs. Trotz.
But Letang and his ability to slow down not only Ovechkin, but the Capitals’ top line as a whole, will be the storyline that is written when this clash of NHL titans has concluded.
Thanks to a chat on a plane with his head coach back in February, Letang is ready to have his say.