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Penguins

Penguins' Kris Letang grateful for chance to work through his struggles

Jonathan Bombulie
| Monday, March 5, 2018, 1:24 p.m.
The Penguins' Kris Letang skates up to a faceoff during the third period against the Coyotes on Feb. 11, 2017 in Glendale, Ariz.
Getty Images
The Penguins' Kris Letang skates up to a faceoff during the third period against the Coyotes on Feb. 11, 2017 in Glendale, Ariz.
The Penguins celebrate with Kris Letang after the winning goal against the Blue Jackets in the shoot out Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins celebrate with Kris Letang after the winning goal against the Blue Jackets in the shoot out Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

When he set up Sidney Crosby's winning goal in overtime against the New York Islanders on Saturday night, Kris Letang wrote his name in a fairly prominent place in the Penguins record books.

It was the 333rd assist of Letang's career, giving him one more than Paul Coffey and setting the team record for assists by a defenseman.

"It's pretty cool, except that it took him three years to do that," Letang said with a grin Monday morning before the Penguins took on the Calgary Flames. "It took me 12."

Letang was in the mood for a few laughs Monday morning – and plenty of introspection – as he talked about a season that has been wholly unlike the 11 before it.

Back in September, Letang and coach Mike Sullivan sat down and discussed their expectations for the 30-year-old defenseman.

Letang was coming off major neck surgery in April. He hadn't resumed skating until a week before training camp. Sullivan, using a lifetime in hockey as a guide, told Letang to expect it would take a while until he was back up to speed.

"He had missed so much hockey and he went through a very serious injury and a surgery and a rehab process," Sullivan said. "I think it's common sense to suggest it was going to take time for him to recapture his game."

Letang didn't argue with Sullivan's logic at the time, but deep down, he didn't believe it.

"When you're fit, conditioning-wise, you think it's going to be all right," Letang said, "but it was not."

No, it wasn't.

Letang struggled through the first few months of the season. The goals against piled up, with his plus-minus rating dipping to minus-16 at one point. The comeback trail was rockier than he expected.

"It was not so much, 'Oh, I can't play anymore.' It was lapses," Letang said. "It was one good shift, one bad one. At the end of the day, people remember – and I remember – my bad shifts."

It was a frustrating stretch for Letang, but he was grateful at the same time. He appreciated Sullivan sticking with him, not cutting back his minutes or curtailing his responsibilities.

"He kept playing me," Letang said. "He knew I'm the type of guy that builds up a workload and that's how I get better. He kept having confidence I would improve my game."

Sullivan said the decision to stick with Letang wasn't really that hard.

"He cares so much about this team and trying to help this team win, and he's a hard critic of himself," Sullivan said. "That's one of the things we love about him. His care factor for this organization, helping this team win, is off the charts. We just tried to help him play through it and keep putting him on the ice and give him the opportunity to go through the process."

With a month left in the regular season, Letang has largely put his struggles behind him.

Since Jan. 1, he's a plus-9. More importantly, he's among the top five defensemen in the league in shot-attempt percentage over that same span. That indicates he's driving possession as well as he ever has.

Passing Coffey on the team's all-time assists list is a great honor, Letang said. Tying Coffey's career total of four Stanley Cup championships would be even better.

"I'm starting to play a little bit better," Letang said. "Hopefully I'm going to hit my best stride when we get into the playoffs."

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

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