Norris Trophy as top defenseman soon will come Letang's way
The Tampa Bay Lightning played at Consol Energy Center April 27 and beat the Penguins, 1-0, in Game 7 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series. I remember walking out of the grand building thinking Penguins defenseman Kris Letang played a lousy game to complete a lousy series in a lousy second half of the NHL season.
The Lightning was back in town Sunday night for the first time since that frustrating game and took a 4-2 beating from the Penguins. I walked into the cold, snow and ice thinking that, if Letang keeps playing this well, the Penguins are going to have a much deeper playoff run this spring.
I mean, really.
How good has Letang become?
I know he was a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate midway through last season when he had six goals and 30 assists after 41 games. But his game suffered badly after Sidney Crosby went out for the season in early January with concussion-like symptoms and then when Evgeni Malkin was lost for the season in early February with a knee injury. He had just two goals in the final 41 games, none in the final 25. He didn't score a goal in the series against the Lightning.
But this February, Letang's game is soaring in the other direction. He had a goal and two assists Sunday night to complete a three-goal, three-assist weekend. In his 11 games since he returned to the lineup after missing 21 games with a concussion, he has five goals and five assists. Not coincidentally, the Penguins went 8-2-1.
Here's one final stat for you:
Letang's eight goals in 33 games match his season total in 82 games last season.
"He's letting it come to him," said Brooks Orpik, Letang's defensive partner. "When he goes looking for [offense], that's when he takes himself out of position and gets in trouble. He's so good that stuff is going to come to him."
Letang was huge against the Lightning in the second period, which Penguins coach Dan Bylsma called "maybe our best period of the season." The Penguins turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead with goals by Chris Kunitz, Letang and, of course, Malkin. "We really tilted the ice," Bylsma said. "We forced the issue with speed."
Speed is the best part of Letang's game. Bylsma mentioned his first of two goals in an 8-5 victory Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets. Letang blew down the right wing and took a great pass from Malkin before firing a shot past goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.
"Sid and [Malkin] do things that make the other players say, 'How did they do that?' " Bylsma said. "Kris does that with his skating. Very few players have the ability to turn heads that way."
Letang deflected all praise to Malkin, who also scored the Penguins' first goal and has 17 in the past 17 games.
"He's carrying us right now. He's making everyone better."
Letang's humility is nice, but he also is doing a lot of the heavy lifting. In addition to his goal, he had nice assists on Malkin's first goal -- on the power play -- and on Kunitz's goal. He had a goal disallowed when teammate Richard Park was called for bumping into Lightning goaltender Mathieu Garon. He also saved a goal when the puck snuck behind Penguins goalie Brent Johnson on a shot by forward Steve Downie, sweeping it away just before it crossed the goal line.
"Johnnie thanked him for that one," Bylsma said, grinning.
Bylsma switched his defensive pairings late in the first period after the Lightning took a 2-0 lead. He broke up Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland, putting Michalek with Niskanen and Engelland with Martin. But he didn't touch the Letang-Orpik pairing.
There's no sense in breaking up a good thing.
"We're two completely different guys," Letang said. "I like to skate and join the rush and be a part of the offense. Brooksie likes to hit hard and make the opponent have a rough night. He's a great player to play with."
Said Orpik, "We complement each other really well. We've been through a lot together. We've learned each other's tendencies. He's easy to read. We don't have to communicate so much to know what each of us is going to do."
Letang and Orpik did their part to keep Tampa Bay's best offensive players -- Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis -- off the score sheet.
That's just a little more proof of how Letang, still only 24, is becoming a great defenseman in front of our eyes.
Here's a safe prediction:
One day, that Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman will be his.
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