Pittsburgh-Once again the Pittsburgh Penguins sit two points back from the Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia Flyers. The opportunity for the Pens to grab a share of the conference lead will be up for grabs Tuesday night at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins are playing playoff type hockey at the moment. They have compiled four straight shootout victories.
Except for a game last week against the Detroit Red Wings, the Pens have consistently struggled to light the lamp. They went nearly 146 minutes without a goal before Ben Lovejoy put in a feed from Alex Kovalev on Sunday against the Florida Panthers. The Pens have depended heavily on tight checking and their defensive core.
Not only has Marc-Andre Fleury set a new team record for consecutive shutout minutes, but the Pens added a familiar face back into their lineup. Sunday, Brooks Orpik stepped onto the ice against the Florida Panthers for the first time since breaking his finger thirteen games ago. Orpik should only beef up the shutdown style that coach Dan Bylsma has preached since the injuries to Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. In a 2-1 shootout win for the Pens, Orpik played nearly 21 minutes and brought back a physical presence that the Pens have been desperately seeking on the blue line.
No one should be more thrilled with the return of Orpik than Kris Letang. The pairing of Letang and Orpik was reunited Sunday against the Panthers. With the up and down offensive style that Letang likes to play, Orpik has the awareness to cover for Letang’s offensive-minded play. Hopefully, the return of Orpik, and his steady shutdown style, will boost the play of Letang.
Letang was a Norris Trophy Candidate midway through this season. He was one of the top scorers amongst defenseman at the all-star break. In 50 games before the all-star break, Letang recorded 7 goals and 34 assists with a +22 rating. Since the break, Letang has looked fatigued, and his play has portrayed that of a tired, overplayed defenseman. In 26 games following the all-star break, he has recorded a lonely goal and six assists with a -9 rating.
As Letang’s scoring has gone quiet, the Pens power play ranking has drowned to depths of 23rd in the league. Although there looks to be no hope for the Penguins’ power play, there might be one big goal that makes or breaks a playoff series. Letang is the key ingredient to the Pens power play success, and he will have to be the catalyst going forward and into the playoffs.
Letang is known for scoring some timely playoff goals. He recorded a tying PPG against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 3 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals. The Penguins would not have been able to even sniff the Stanley Cup if it weren’t for an OT goal scored by Letang against the Washington Capitals in game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semi-finals in that same playoff year. The Pens were in a huge hole by losing the first two games of that series against the Capitals. Letang registered an overtime winner to prevent the Pens from falling into an impossible 0-3 hole to the Caps.
Letang has handled the role as top defenseman quite valiantly. Leading the Pens in minutes almost every night, Letang is one of the most talented up-and- coming defenseman in the NHL. Opposing teams have to prepare and keep a keen eye on Letang at all times.
Conversely, Letang has been penciled into the Pens lineup for every game this season. His average time on ice for this year’s campaign has been around 24 minutes. Recently, with the injuries that the Pens have had to endure, Letang has had to play close to 30 minutes in certain games. Letang’s stats show that much of the Pens success depends upon how well he plays.
The Pens have 45 wins this season, and in those wins, Letang is a +36 with 34 points. In the Pens 31 losses, including OT losses, he is a -23 with 14 points. As would be expected, Letang scores more against Eastern Conference foes than any other opponent. This is a positive considering these will be the teams that the Pens will have to face in the playoffs.
Right now though, Letang’s confidence is definitely shaken. He isn’t shooting the puck enough on the power play, and more than anything, he isn’t producing. The majority of Letang’s scoring output came in the first half of the season when he was fresher and in better form. Not only has his scoring performance dipped dramatically, but his mental game has not been as sharp. Letang has gone back to old habits by trying to force cross ice passes in his own zone. His decisions on the offensive blue line have also been questionable at times.
The Pens had a power play in the late stages of their game against the Red Wings last week. Darren Helm was skating towards Letang with a full head of steam, and Letang, instead of retreating off of the blue line, stood there flat-footed. Helm whizzed right by Letang. If not for a miraculous save by Brent Johnson, Helm would’ve scored a short-handed goal with just over three minutes left in the game to beat the Pens. The blamed would’ve rested solely upon Letang’s shoulders for an extremely poor decision to pinch at the blue line.
If the Pens want to compete for a Stanley Cup with or without the aid of Sidney Crosby, Letang will have to be a vital part. He is the backbone of the Pens defense. Most of the Pens defensemen have single roles to play. Letang plays a dual-role. He is depended upon to shutdown the opposing team’s top scoring lines, and relied upon for blue line offensive production.
Bylsma needs to seriously consider resting Letang before the start of the playoffs. Letang’s play obviously is not up to the standards it once was at the start of this season. Time is needed for a 23-year-old to get accustomed to being a team’s number one defenseman. Letang has never had to carry the burden of leading a team in ice time and being their power play quarterback. He is worn out. After the all-star break Letang’s flaws have slowly been drawn to the surface. On the other hand, leading up to the halfway point of the season, Letang looked to be the top defenseman in the league. Although, the probability of Bylsma resting Letang is minimal, hopefully the return of Orpik will spark an improvement in Letang’s play.
Letang must regain his confidence and get back to being who he was at the early stages of this season. His performance has improved over the Pens current 4-game winning streak. He has registered two points and is a +1 during the Pens streak in which there has basically been no goal scoring provided by anyone. Let’s be optimistic and hope that Letang is out of his funk and back in somewhat better form for the playoffs.
If Letang continues to struggle, a healthy scratching should be in order to rest him even though the Pens made a team goal to catch to Flyers in the Eastern Conference standings.
This is a position that no one thought the Penguins would be in considering all their injuries. In hockey, and in the playoffs, home ice is more insignificant than any other major sport. All anyone has to do is ask the Pittsburgh Penguins. They won 2 game 7’s on the road en-route to their 2009 Stanley Cup. Then the Pens were ousted by the Canadiens in last year’s playoffs in a game 7 at Mellon arena.
Letang’s performance in the playoffs will be crucial to the Pens success. Bylsma must do whatever needs to be done to have Letang in playoff form and in the best physical and mental condition as possible. If this means resting him while trying to capture an Eastern Conference title, so be it.