Starkey: Letang back in form
On Wednesday, Kris Letang returned to the Penguins' lineup.
On Saturday, he returned to form — thanks to a visit from the Philadelphia Flyers.
“It was good for me to play a team like that,” Letang said after what some might consider one of the best losses in franchise history: a 4-3 overtime defeat that meant the Penguins will avoid the Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
I get the feeling Letang would welcome a return engagement as soon as possible. Barely 10 weeks removed from a stroke, he looked like the wild-man Letang that Penguins fans have come to love and dread.
You know that Letang — the helmet-off, hair-flying, hit-making, risk-taking, faster-than-anyone-skating Letang. Say what you will about his chancy play, the Penguins need an energized Letang if they are going to get where they want to go.
You should have heard teammates raving after Letang played 23 minutes, 42 seconds (second on the team), scored his career-best 11th goal, assisted on another, nearly won the game on a 3-on-3 overtime breakaway and mixed it up with the ever-popular Scott Hartnell (more on that in a minute).
“His skill set, and the way he jumps up into the play and can shoot the puck ... he was all over the place,” said winger James Neal. “That's the way we like him. He's back to himself.”
Back to himself two games into a return from a stroke?
It really looked that way.
“It's unique,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “And it's a spectacle. I mean, the way he skated up to the net in overtime there with what could have been the game-winning goal (before Ray Emery stopped Letang's backhander) … It's pretty awesome to see him back playing at that level.”
Nobody seemed to like it much when Hartnell knocked Letang down from behind in the middle of the third period, breaking up a scoring chance. Letang angrily confronted him. Hartnell hissed back (but did not bite Letang, which was an issue in a long-ago confrontation, you'll remember). The two went off for roughing, and the crowd went nuts.
Letang didn't seem to mind any of it.
“It's part of the game,” he said, smiling. “I got hit from behind, and I turned around. It was not really a shock.”
Just seeing the Flyers' orange and black was good for his spirits.
“Different team, more emotion in the game,” Letang said, comparing it to the Detroit game. “It felt pretty good to get hit a lot.”
Bylsma made waves when asked whether the Letang-Hartnell confrontation caused him any “pause.” After saying “a little bit” and recounting the play, Bylsma joked that Hartnell was “a guy picking on a guy who had a stroke.”
It came off as ill-timed because of the subject matter but also as tongue-in-cheek. To make sure, I asked Bylsma after his news conference, and he said the comment “absolutely” was made in jest. He was in no way incriminating Hartnell.
Bylsma acknowledged that while he is concerned for Letang the way a father might be for a son, Letang is fair game if he's on the ice.
The Penguins did not feel the need to go overboard in protecting Letang, either, and why should they have? It was two guys doing what hockey players do.
Sidney Crosby was asked whether there is an instinct to protect Letang more than usual, given what he has been through.
“Not more than usual,” Crosby said. “We do know he's a guy they're going to target. You stick up for teammates, of course. And you're aware of the fact that teams might target him even more. But we know he's OK now.”
People outside the locker room will make a big deal about such things. Inside, the Penguins know the big story from this game was seeing wild-man Letang back in form.
“He's our most talented defenseman,” fellow blue-liner Matt Niskanen said. “He helps with some of the things we've been struggling with. Getting out of our zone quick is one of the biggest things. Some of (the solution) is breaking out with the puck on our stick clean. Some of it is ending plays quickly. Kris is a pretty good defender. He manhandles people in the corners, grabs the puck and heads the other way.
“We've missed that a little bit.”
Quite a lot, actually.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at email@example.com.