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Letang makes impact as game improves during playoffs

| Sunday, May 4, 2014, 11:52 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang checks the Rangers' Daniel Carcilllo during the second period of Game 2 of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series Sunday, May 4, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Kris Letang insists he's still ramping his game back up to 100 percent after missing 10 weeks while recovering from a stroke.

His teammates have seen signs the old Letang is back. It took all of 10 games to get there.

“When he's on his game, he's a world-class defenseman,” fellow Penguins defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. “And that's what he was (Sunday). He was great.”

Letang had three points and was impactful on seemingly every shift in a 3-0 victory against the New York Rangers in Game 2 of the teams' second-round playoff series Sunday night.

Playing 25:35 — the most he has for a non-overtime game since December — Letang had a goal and two assists over a Penguins-high 29 shifts. He was part of a penalty kill that was 4-for-4, and he had an assist on a Jussi Jokinen power-play goal.

Letang attempted five shots, and he had two hits and two blocked shots. But numbers don't tell the whole story. Letang's play passed the proverbial “eye test” Sunday. Arguably the best parts of his game — his skating, ability to carry the puck through the neutral zone and his passing in the transition game — all were on display.

“(Sunday) we saw him attack with his skating — and not just on the goal,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “He was extremely good, and his defending was mostly with his skating, mostly with his ability to stop the rush and to play early and even exploding on the puck in battles in the defensive zone.”

Less than four months removed from a Jan. 30 stroke, Letang once again is looking like the Norris Trophy finalist he was last season.

“I think he's really close,” Jokinen said. “Even in Game 1 (Friday), he played great. I actually told him (Sunday) morning, ‘I'm really happy — if you play like that, we are a tough team to beat.'

“And he played the same way (Sunday). Even better. He was fun to watch.”

Letang scored midway through Game 2, the eventual official game-winner in a victory that evened the series at a game apiece.

The goal actually was an own-goal by Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi, who extended his stick while diving to break up a centering pass from Letang to Chris Kunitz. The puck hit off his stick and deflected into the net past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist 10:26 into the second period.

Make no mistake, though, being credited with the goal isn't all that made him a standout in a crucial win for the Penguins.

Letang is averaging 23:29 of ice time in the playoffs — not down much from his 24:14 average during the regular season. That's notable because Letang's physical activity was limited during most of the time he was out because of the stroke, and his trademark world-class conditioning has suffered as a result.

“I'm trying to build,” Letang said, adding a chuckle. “I'd been out for (2½) months — and I'm thrown into the playoffs. I'm just trying to get a rhythm back, but I would say in the last four games I'm building off what I do best.”

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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