Penguins notebook: Letang unsure how to avoid hard contact

| Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, 12:03 p.m.

In each of his first three games after a six-game injury absence, defenseman Kris Letang had to absorb a bone-jarring hit.

Against Minnesota, it was a Jarret Stoll shoulder to the chin. Against Toronto, it was a shove from behind into the boards from Leo Komarov. Against Detroit, it was a check from Justin Abdelkader.

Because he's such an important player in the lineup, leading the team's defensemen in ice time and quarterbacking the power play, the Penguins would like to see Letang avoid getting clobbered.

Letang would like that too. He's just not sure how.

“Not touching the puck? I don't know. Even when I don't have the puck, I guess I get hit,” Letang said. “I play the game one way. If I start trying to do different things out there, I'm just going to be worried and always be thinking, and I'm not going to be able to play my game.”

Coach Mike Sullivan said he believes Letang can get to a point where he is physically vulnerable less frequently.

“It's a process, for sure,” Sullivan said. “One of the points we've stressed to him is to be more selective on when he chooses to make plays and put himself in those type of circumstances.”

Off to a good start

With Marc-Andre Fleury back from a nine-game absence because of a concussion, 21-year-old Matt Murray was returned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL.

Murray's first NHL stint was an unqualified success. He went 2-1-0 with a 1.72 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.

“I told Matt when I was coaching him in Wilkes-Barre I think he's an NHL-caliber goalie,” Sullivan said. “We feel that strongly that he's that good.”

If Murray had stayed in the NHL, he would have received only sporadic starts as Fleury's backup. In the minors, he will play regularly.

“As disappointing as it is, I'm sure, for a player to have to go back to the American League, I think Matt's maturity, he really understands the process,” Sullivan said.

Cullen's role

With Sullivan continuing to shake up line combinations pretty regularly, veteran forward Matt Cullen has seen his five-on-five role change.

After playing much of the first three months of the season as the fourth-line center, he's spent some time lately as the second-line left wing alongside Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.

“As far as playing the wing or the middle, it doesn't really matter to me,” Cullen said. “But it's fun playing with guys like Phil and Geno. Those guys are pretty exciting players to be on the ice with. I try to stay out of their way a little bit.”

Tough stretch

After Saturday's game against the Islanders, the Penguins enter a particularly challenging portion of their schedule.

A home-and-home series with Chicago on Tuesday and Wednesday will kick off a four-game road swing.

“It's an important time of the year, you know, with where we are in the standings and what we have in front of us,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “There are a lot of difficult games, a lot of teams that are tight in the standings.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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