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Pens' Letang, Orpik mesh nicely

| Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008

Kris Letang plays with an air of confidence rarely seen in a 21-year-old defenseman.

Off the ice, however, Letang needs a steady dose of reassurance.

"He's always asking me, 'Do you think we played well; do you think we played well?' " said Letang's veteran defense partner, Brooks Orpik. "I say, 'As long as (the coaches aren't) saying anything to us and we're still together, I guess we're playing well.' "

Their ice-time numbers would indicate that the coaches are pleased. Of players who've appeared in at least 10 games with the Penguins this season, only Sidney Crosby (22:41 per game) has logged more ice than Letang (22:22). Orpik (21:24) is fourth, behind Evgeni Malkin (22:20).

Coach Michel Therrien figured Letang was the best option to take injured Sergei Gonchar's spot next to Orpik during training camp.

At this rate, the duo might never be separated.

The Penguins' goals-against average has not suffered, sitting at 2.56 compared to last year's figure of 2.58, and it's often Letang and Orpik pitted against the other team's top line.

Therrien will always seek to deploy the two -- both outstanding skaters -- against speedy lines, in particular. If the opposing team's top line depends more on puck possession and isn't especially quick, he will use the Rob Scuderi-Hal Gill pairing.

Letang takes comfort in playing next to a rock-solid defensive presence in Orpik.

"We complement each other really well," Letang said. "He's a stay-at-home defenseman, really good in the zone, and he's always talking a lot on the ice for me."

If Orpik isn't easing Letang's worries about their performance, he is telling him to quit obsessing about a goal-scoring drought that has reached 46 games, including playoffs.

Letang hasn't scored since March 12 against Buffalo, though he is third on the team in assists with nine.

"He's always worried about, 'Oh, I don't have a goal this year,' " Orpik said. "I say, 'Tanger, I don't care if you don't score all year, as long as you're playing well and getting the pucks to the forwards and making a good first pass. Don't worry about goals. If you start worrying about that, your defensive game will suffer."

Therrien concurs.

"Eventually, the offensive numbers will get there," Therrien said. "I'm not worried about that. For us -- and it was the same even with Gonchar -- we want to make sure he is a solid defensive defenseman first."

Letang uses his strong lower body, stick skills and superior skating ability to his advantage in the defensive end. His first pass is consistently good, and if he gets caught in the offensive zone, his speed allows him to rush back into position.

He also likes to hit people.

"More physical than I thought he was," said Orpik, who knows a thing or two about that aspect of the game.

A third-round pick (62nd overall) in 2005, Letang appeared on the Penguins' radar late, thanks to veteran scout Chuck Grillo. Turned out he was perfect for the post-lockout NHL, which put a premium on swift, puck-moving defensemen -- even those who stand under 6 feet, such as the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Letang.

Hall-of-Fame coach Scotty Bowman made special note of Letang while scouting the Penguins for the Detroit Red Wings last season.

"A lot of people maybe haven't said it," Bowman said at the time, "but I think they had a big change when they got Letang in the lineup."

Letang appreciates all the kind words, but he really would like to find the back of the net one of these days.

"I think about it a little bit," he admitted, "because some people are talking about it."

He laughed and added, "I'm not focusing on scoring a goal or taking some chances to do it, but I am hoping it goes in some time."

MINUTE MEN

Penguins leaders in ice time:

*Philippe Boucher
23:00 avg. ice time

Sidney Crosby
22:41 avg. ice time

Kris Letang
22:22 avg. ice time

Evgeni Malkin
22:20 avg. ice time

Brooks Orpik
21:24 avg. ice time

*--played in only three games

NHL leaders in ice time:

Jay Bouwmeester (Fla).
28:24 avg. ice time

Dion Phaneuf (Calgary)
28:16 avg. ice time

Duncan Keith (Chi.)
27:18 avg. ice time

Bryan Allen (Fla.)
27:11 avg. ice time

S. Niedermayer (Ana.)
26:35 avg. ice time

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