Penguins' Letang returning to dominant defensive form
EDMONTON, Alberta — Defenseman Kris Letang formally introduced himself to the NHL in Western Canada six years ago.
Letang is far more identifiable to NHL fans now, but like that venture during his rookie season, may have found his game out west once again.
Arguably the Penguins' dominant player in Tuesday's 5-4 victory in Vancouver, Letang drew high praise for his two-way performance.
“He was one of our best players at both ends of the rink,” coach Dan Bylsma said.
That hasn't always been the case this season.
Letang, who has been hobbled by injuries, played some of the poorest hockey of his NHL career in November, when turnovers off his stick became commonplace.
Following a three-week absence with an elbow infection, Letang looked shaky early against Winnipeg on Sunday.
Nothing about his game looked uncertain against the Canucks.
“I felt good out there,” Letang said. “My legs were good.”
So was his decision-making.
Letang read plays superbly all game, jumping into the play at appropriate times without taking unnecessary chances. This Letang — the one who leads rushes, uses his skating to shut down the opposition's best players and plays with a nasty streak — is precisely what the Penguins want to see.
“I think I did some good things out there,” Letang said.
He has a good history in Western Canadian venues, having produced shootout winners in Calgary and Vancouver during his 2007 rookie campaign.
Letang didn't get a chance to end Tuesday's game in a shootout — center Sidney Crosby took care of that — but his play did not go unnoticed. Multiple teammates spoke after the game of Letang's performance.
Finding the happy medium between being a presence on the rush without leaving defense partner Rob Scuderi hung out to dry is paramount to Letang's success. He was clicking on all cylinders against the Canucks, twice joining the play in the second period to perfection.
Goaltender Eddie Lack made a spectacular save on one Letang offering, while the defenseman fired a shot off the crossbar during another scoring opportunity in the second period.
“The one off the crossbar might have been his best shot,” Bylsma said. “He had two great chances coming on the second wave.”
Bylsma acknowledged that Letang's confidence level has been a problem this season.
“Kris had to get back into the mix,” Bylsma said. “He hasn't felt real comfortable for a lot of games. I'm not sure he was feeling his most confident in that (Winnipeg) game. But in this game, he was a real factor for us. His ability to get back up the ice, to defend, to be active was great.”
Letang registered six shots against Vancouver, a total exceeded only by right wing James Neal's seven.
In fact, Letang's goal late in the third period helped the Penguins pull off the comeback and gave him seven goals in only 24 games.
With Letang, however, the eye test is often more important than the numbers. And the coaching staff liked what it saw.
“He had so many good chances all night,” Bylsma said. “Even in overtime, you saw him breaking up plays in the defensive zone. He was really good.”