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Letang's struggles must end for Pens to make run

by Alan Robinson
If there is any Pittsburgh Penguins player who has been regularly sending get-well cards and "Hey, how are you doin?'" text messages to Sidney Crosby, it's defenseman Kris Letang.

While the Penguins are proving to be a resilient, focused team since Crosby was sidelined with a concussion -- challenging for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference titles even without their signature star -- Letang doesn't resemble the player he was when Crosby was playing.

The statistics say so. So does the look on Letang's face when his shots don't go in, a pass gets intercepted, a play breaks down or a goal results because of his misreading a play. During the Crosby-less second half of the Penguins' season, there have been more such moments for Letang than during the first half of the season.

Letang not only is the Penguins' X-factor as the playoffs begin, a player who singularly could determine whether they move on or go home, he might be one of the biggest such factors in the 16-team Stanley Cup Playoff field.

The Penguins are making a fifth consecutive playoff appearance, but never during that time have they been more of a mystery team.

Their down-the-stretch play suggests they could challenge for the Stanley Cup even without both Crosby and former Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin; yet it wouldn't be the biggest surprise if they exited after the first round, either.

Letang might be able to prevent an early exit if he can again be the All-Star player he was before Crosby was hurt -- or, even, the player whose playoff statistics a year ago eclipsed those for the entire regular season that preceded the playoff run.

"He needs to be better," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

Before Crosby was hurt, the 23-year-old Letang was experiencing a breakout season with 6 goals, 30 assists and a plus-23 rating in 41 games.  Among NHL defensemen, only Andrej Meszaros (plus-25) of Philadelphia had a better plus-minus.

There was even talk that Letang, at a relatively young age, might win the Norris Trophy awarded to the NHL's best defenseman.

That speculation has lessened recently. Following the Jan. 5 game with Tampa that saw Crosby exit the lineup, Letang has been just another player on a good team. After a 36-point first half,  he's put up just 13 points in the next 40 games.

His points-per-game average dropped from 0.88 for the first half of the season to 0.33 for the second, and not because he wasn't shooting. He took 123 shots before Crosby was hurt and 109 since.

Even more alarming to the Penguins, Letang is a minus-7 since Jan. 6 and his power-play production is down.

The Penguins were No. 17 on the power play with Crosby, but are last with a 13.3 percent conversion rate without him.

Teams generally don't advance far in the postseason with such an ineffectual power play.

"It's a concern, because we're looking for our back end to provide some offensive shots to the net," coach Dan Bylsma said. "The most important thing is getting the shot off and through to the net-front area. That's something that has dropped for Kris. As a result, he's gotten less goals, less rebound situations for his players."

Letang's falloff at even strength has been even more startling.

He had four goals and 18 assists in even-strength situations with Crosby, but has a mere three points -- all assists -- during the second half of the season.

His last power-play goal was Feb. 11; his last even-strength goal was Nov. 29.

"Things just aren't going my way right now," Letang said. "I get all of these chances and the puck just isn't going in. I'm just going to keep trying, keep working and, hopefully, I will score more in the playoffs."

His performance chart suggests he will.

Last season, he had 5 goals and 2 assists in 13 playoff games after having 3 goals in 72 games all season. The season before, as the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, he had 4 goals.

Letang's importance to the Penguins in the playoffs? Maybe this is illustrative: His career playoff plus-minus is plus-1, while defensively strong center Jordan Staal's is minus-14.

"I can't wait for the playoffs to start," Letang said. "It's the best time of the year. Will my production be up then? I don't know. I hope so. But I've got to make sure no one else is scoring against me when I'm out there; whether my production is up or not."

That is Bylsma's primary concern. The coach believes Letang has tried to do too much with Crosby out of the lineup -- score on the power play, create offense at even strength, carry the puck -- and might be neglecting his primary responsibility, to prevent goals.

"When he's gone out there looking to carry the puck and make plays or get in the play, it's taken away from his all-around game," Bylsma said. "We've talked about it. When it comes to the playoffs, he's good there because his focus has gone on defending. And it's opened up more for him the other way."

The Stanley Cup Playoffs have been good to Letang the past two seasons. Even if the Penguins are to make more than a cameo appearance in this postseason without their two biggest stars, they need Letang to respond again to the pressure of win-or-be-gone hockey.

"Playing that good defensive game, being a shut-down guy -- I think that helps his overall game," Bylsma said.

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