Penguins top Bruins, but lose Letang
The Penguins' ninth consecutive victory did not come without a price.
Defenseman Kris Letang, a catalyst at both ends of the rink during the team's March surge, sustained a lower-body injury during a 2-1 victory over the Boston Bruins at Consol Energy Center on Sunday.
Letang was injured late in the first period and did not return.
He skated into a corner while trailed by Bruins center Brad Marchand, whose skate blade appeared to make contact with the back of Letang's skate. However, several teammates said Letang's injury was not a cut to the back of the leg.
Coach Dan Bylsma said Letang is being re-evaluated for a lower-body injury.
Marchand was concerned for Letang.
“He did say something like he was in pain,” said Marchand, who added he was unaware of his skate blade making contact with Letang. “I don't know what happened.”
Letang's injury remains something of a mystery, but there was plenty of evidence during the final 40 minutes against the Bruins to conclude that the Penguins are not the same team without their star defenseman.
Perhaps the team's two best puck possession players — Letang and center Evgeni Malkin (upper-body injury) — are out of the lineup.
Against the Bruins, Letang's absence was especially clear. The Penguins have been outshot in only 11 of their 30 games this season, but they managed only eight shots during the final two periods while surrendering 21 to the Bruins. The 18 shots the Penguins registered represent the lowest total of shots in a regular-season game in the Dan Bylsma era. A far more famous 2-1 victory — Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final in Detroit — marks the previous time the Penguins put 18 shots on net.
Leading the rush with gusto in recent games, Letang leads NHL defensemen with 28 points and is the Penguins' fourth-leading scorer. Without his presence, the Penguins' transition game was nonexistent against Boston.
The Bruins believe they took advantage of Letang's absence.
“Sure,” Boston coach Claude Julien said. “Look at the shot clock and the time we spent in their zone. That's exactly what we did.”
Tomas Vokoun was sharp, turning away 31 of 32 shots. The veteran goaltender emphasized that playing without Letang made life more difficult for Penguins' defensemen.
With Letang out, Paul Martin played a little more than 30 minutes, and Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen logged nearly 24 minutes in the Penguins' second one-goal victory over the Bruins in less than a week.
“It was a really tough game — obviously, playing five (defensemen) in the second game of a back-to-back,” Vokoun said. “Those guys did a really great job. We bent but did not break. We held onto that one-goal lead (because) we played a really, really smart game. It was what we needed to play.”
The severity of Letang's injury could dictate management's path before the April 3 NHL trade deadline.
A priority for the Penguins heading into the deadline is finding a top-four defenseman, preferably a partner for Letang. Management has coveted a defensively stout defenseman to pair with Letang since last summer when the Penguins pursued free-agent Ryan Suter.
While both teams entered this contest fatigued — the Bruins and Penguins each played six games in the past nine days — there was a sense among the Bruins that the Penguins were vulnerable without Letang.
“Anytime their defensive corps is down to five, you want to play down low,” Marchand said. “We just didn't finish.”