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Penguins' Bylsma wants Cup version of Letang

| Friday, April 18, 2014, 9:43 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang scoots up the boards with the puck past the Blue Jackets' Blake Comeau in game one during first round Stanley Cup playoff action on Wednesday, April 16, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Coach Dan Bylsma wants Kris Letang to resurrect his form from five years ago.

“When I think about Kris at his best — and it's something we reference very often — it's his play in the '09 playoffs with Mark Eaton,” Bylsma said Friday after the Penguins practiced at Consol Energy Center.

“How he played, the role he played really, particularly, in the (Stanley Cup) Final. … He focused on playing defense, defending well, defense first.”

Then, Bylsma continued, Letang and Eaton were matched defensively against the Red Wings' third line, which featured winger Marian Hossa. Their assignment was to shut down Hossa.

The Penguins won the series, and Hossa finished only with three assists. The year before, while playing for the Penguins against Detroit in the Final, Hossa produced three goals and seven points.

The Penguins carry a 1-0 lead into a home Game 2 for their current best-of-seven series against Columbus on Saturday night.

Letang's playoff opener Wednesday night was not his finest of 81 playoff games. He misfired on three attempted shots and took minor penalties for slashing and interference. He played only 18 minutes and 20 seconds, and Bylsma acknowledged benching Letang for most of the final period.

Letang played only three minutes and 55 seconds on six third-period shifts.

A contrite Letang said Friday he deserved that cutting of his ice time, which was down about six minutes from the regular season.

“I put my team in trouble, and I have to remain in check and make sure these mistakes don't repeat themselves,” Letang said, referring to the retaliatory slashing penalty from the second period that Bylsma cited after Game 1.

Letang said Bylsma's handling of him in the third period was “the right thing to do.” He added that “there was nothing to say, really” during a Friday morning conversation with Bylsma.

“There's sanctions,” Letang said. “I mean, I have to respect my teammates. Taking a penalty like that was a lack of respect.”

For Letang, Game 1 marked only his fourth game since missing 10 weeks because of a stroke.

He is still working off rust and getting acclimated to game-type situations.

His slashing penalty was a response to Columbus forward Boone Jenner, a reputable agitator who was suspended in consecutive World Junior Championship tournaments. Letang also interfered with Columbus defenseman James Wisniewski while in the offensive zone with the Penguins on a power play and seeking to extend a one-goal lead.

In addition to better “keeping (his) cool,” Letang said he must improve on timing after the lengthy layoff because of the stroke. The foundation of his game — strong, smooth skating — is back, Letang said.

That skating is what proved so problematic for Hossa five years ago. Letang consistently closed off open space for Hossa, who was limited to three or fewer shots in five of seven games.

Letang finished the 2009 playoffs with four goals and 13 points, but that offensive production was secondary to his strong own-zone work, teammates said.

His partner, Eaton, was a stay-at-home defenseman. General manager Ray Shero signed a similar player, Rob Scuderi, last summer —specifically to pair with Letang, who sometimes becomes too infatuated with chasing scoring opportunities, in Shero and Bylsma's estimation.

“We've heard Brooks Orpik say that when Kris is playing well, it's that he defends first,” Bylsma said. “That's really when he's at his best. That's really what I go back to — his mentality in that series and how he played against Hossa.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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