Letang, Niskanen may be perfect pairing for Penguins

| Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, 8:50 p.m.

Much has been made of the Penguins' new “shutdown” defensive pairing of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin.

Make no mistake, however. The pairing that includes defenseman Kris Letang is considered the team's top pairing, and despite only being together for only a few days, the Penguins' star believes he may have found a long-term partner.

Coach Dan Bylsma put Letang and Matt Niskanen together only 24 hours before the season opener in Philadelphia. Don't look for them to be separated anytime soon.

“The lockout gave us so much time to think about so many things,” said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who runs the team's defensemen. “One of the things we thought about was using Kris and Matt together. We thought it would work. So far, it has.”

Letang spent most of last season skating with either Orpik or Martin. Although he isn't especially picky about his defense partner, Letang admits feeling a particular comfort with Niskanen.

“It felt good right away,” Letang said. “I like everything about it.”

Niskanen possesses a couple of attributes that make him a perfect fit with Letang.

Unlike most right-handed defensemen, Niskanen prefers playing on the left side of the ice. The reason for Niskanen's preference to playing the left side is noteworthy because it coincides with the other aspect that makes him an intriguing match with Letang.

During his rookie season in Dallas, Niskanen was paired with star defenseman Sergei Zubov, who always played the right side. This forced Niskanen to adapt to playing on the left side, which he did seamlessly. That season in Dallas also taught Niskanen to play with a star, and the parallels between Letang and Zubov are difficult to ignore.

“I think one of the reasons I like playing with Kris so much,” Niskanen said, “is that it reminds me of playing with Zubov. Very similar players who played a very similar style. There's no doubt that my time playing with Zubov got me ready to play with Kris.”

Like Zubov, Letang is a gifted skater who isn't afraid to take chances.

Niskanen also showcases some offensive touch — he and Letang each scored a goal during the team's 2-0 road trip to begin the season — but realizes playing it safe is often prudent while on the ice with the daring Letang.

“And I think the big thing for Matt is how comfortable he is in our system now,” Reirden said. “We talked about him a lot this summer and honestly, we talked a lot about how Matt played with Zubov and how maybe that would help him adjust to being with Kris.”

Niskanen was uncomfortable with Bylsma's system following his trade from Dallas two years ago. However, after a full training camp in 2011, Niskanen produced a steady season that saw the Penguins reward him with a two-year, $4.6 million contract in June.

He played most of last season with Deryk Engelland.

Niskanen now might remain with Letang, especially if the star has any say.

“It took me a moment to adjust to his game because he's right-handed and I haven't played with any right-handed guys in a while,” Letang said. “But I'm really happy playing with him. Very comfortable.”

Through two games, the pairing has been nearly flawless. While Niskanen has been steady, Letang has been spectacular at times, his skating drawing audible responses from the Madison Square Garden crowd on Sunday.

“It's funny how sometimes pairings work out,” Reirden said. “I think playing with a guy like Kris is a good fit for Matt. And even though it's been two games, Kris has been so good. His turnovers are down. He's just been so good. Sometimes, you play with the right player, and it brings out the best in you.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter at JoshYohe_Trib.

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