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Penguins' Letang, Crosby hitting their stride under Sullivan

| Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, 8:48 p.m.
USA Today Sports
Sidney Crosby celebrates with Patric Hornqvist after scoring a goal past Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo on Saturday. Crosby has at least one goal in six straight games and at least one point in 10 in a row.

SUNRISE, Fla. — When the Penguins made a coaching change Dec. 12, an opportunity arose for Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang.

They had a chance to show their flagging numbers through parts of last year and into the first few months of this season were a result of a team-wide malaise.

They could demonstrate they were still elite-level point producers, not encumbered by age, injury or anything else.

In the two months since, they not only have proven those points, they have taken it one step further. They are playing some of the best hockey of their careers.

An unlikely comeback win over the Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers on Saturday night is a case in point.

With the Penguins trailing 2-0 late in the third period, Crosby set up Letang for a goal with 5 minutes, 4 seconds left, and Letang returned the favor with 1:15 to go.

When the pair hooked up again on Letang's game-winner 1:27 into overtime, the Penguins won a game they trailed 2-0 with less than six minutes left in regulation for the first time in the club's 49-year history, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

“The foundation of this team and the identity of this group has to start with our compete level and our energy,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought it started (Saturday night) with Sid and Kris Letang. Those two guys, for me, were tremendous.”

Letang has racked up eight goals and 25 points in 16 games since Sullivan took over. That is the most points he has had in a 16-game span in his entire career, topping a couple of 21-point stretches in 2012-13.

Letang is sixth in the league in average ice time and second in points per game among defensemen. He has been a big reason why the team's power play has pulled itself up off the canvas.

Letang just might be playing the best hockey he has ever played.

“He's put in a stretch of work here for our team that's really allowed us to climb back in this playoff race,” Sullivan said.

Under Sullivan, Letang has a coach who has taken a vested interest in the way the 28-year-old defenseman thinks about the game.

“That's a constant dialogue between him and I,” Sullivan said. “I'm trying to just keep him in check there as far as him being calculated on when he joins the rush, when he gets involved and when he needs to stay behind the attack in case he has to defend.”

Given Crosby's track record, it is hard to say he is playing the best hockey of his career. After all, he had a 25-game scoring streak in 2010, a 19-game run in 2007 and a 16-game spree in 2009.

But he's not that far off.

Besides his active 10-game points streak, Crosby has scored goals in six straight, tying a career-best streak established in 2006. With 16 goals and 30 points in 21 games under Sullivan, he has skyrocketed into the top 10 in the league in scoring.

“He's unbelievable. Obviously, you guys have seen him now for 10 years,” goalie Jeff Zatkoff said. “He's so talented, and he tries so hard.”

For Crosby, the coaching change was a mental reset button of sorts.

“Everyone has to prove themselves. Everyone kind of starts fresh,” he said. “I feel like I was in the same boat, wanting to make sure I was personally better. As a group, I think we've been better. When the team's playing well, I think everybody individually benefits.”

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

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