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Letang: 'I have to be better' in Game 6

Penguins defenseman ready to shoulder load against Lightning

by Wes Crosby / Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang knows he can improve.

He likely must if the Penguins are to extend their season and defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final at Amalie Arena on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). The Lightning lead the best-of-7 series 3-2.

In the Penguins' overtime loss in Game 5 on Sunday, Letang was on the ice for each of Tampa Bay's four goals and on the bench when Pittsburgh scored each of its three. His minus-4 rating marked the third time in five games this series he finished with a minus.

Letang doesn't put much stock in that number, but he knows his play has to be stronger if the Penguins are to force a Game 7 in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

"That's a stat. It certainly didn't feel that good to look at it, but when you break down the film, it's a team game," Letang said. "Some nights, I'll get a plus and I don't do anything out there. But certainly I have to be better and I have a chance to do it [Tuesday]."

Letang, while splitting time alongside defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta, struggled to defend Tampa Bay's line of Tyler Johnson centering left wing Alex Killorn and right wing Nikita Kucherov.

Those three players accounted for each of the Lightning's four goals Sunday. Letang credited them for rallying Tampa Bay from two deficits in Game 5 but thinks Pittsburgh could be better at neutralizing the high-powered line.

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm5: Kucherov tallies two goals in Game 5

"You have to be aware of when they're on the ice. They're a really good line. They have lots of skill and a lot of speed," Letang said. "We didn't get run out of our building. We're pretty confident in the assets we have, and it's just a fact of playing 60 minutes and playing them the right way. I think we'll be good."

The Penguins went 2-8-1 without Letang during the regular season. His impact is clear but has not been as evident recently. He has one assist in the series and hasn't made the scoresheet in his past three games. His only postseason goal was an empty-netter with 13 seconds remaining in Pittsburgh's 3-1 win in Game 3 against the New York Rangers in the first round. But even with his lack of production, Letang is no less important to the Penguins' success.

"I think Kris, at times, can simplify his game and when he does, I think he's at his best," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "If he's looking for the next best player, sometimes he gets himself in trouble. 

"But certainly, listen, he plays monster minutes for us. He's in all the key situations. He's an important guy for us. He's an important guy in all the situations ... He's been a big part of our success here and I believe he's going to continue to be moving forward."

With Letang's recent lack of production, frustration has seemed to seep into his game. 

With the Penguins trailing 2-0 midway through the second period of Game 4 in Tampa, Letang was called for cross checking Jonathan Drouin and roughing Brian Boyle, who also went to the penalty box. Pittsburgh forward Matt Cullen was simultaneously penalized for holding Killorn, and Drouin scored Tampa Bay's third goal of the game shortly after.

Sullivan has said he routinely discusses the importance of Letang remaining composed and thinks he has improved in that area lately.

"I don't sense [frustration] at all," Sullivan said. "He's trying to play the game the right way, and the reality is when you make it this far in the playoffs, the games are hard ... We don't have the luxury to get discouraged. We just have to continue to play."

Much rides on Letang with the Penguins facing elimination for the first time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and he's prepared to shoulder that responsibility.

"I think we have to come with the mindset that we're going to play the right way," Letang said. "So, we just have to play our game and we know the recipe. So, there's no other trick than that."

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