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Loss of Letang leaves big hole for Penguins

Already without Maatta, Pittsburgh thin on defense for Game 4 against Washington

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins have to play Game 4 against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday without Kris Letang, their top defenseman and arguably their most important player.

Letang was suspended one game by the NHL's Department of Player Safety on Tuesday for his interference hit on Capitals forward Marcus Johansson at 15:41 of the first period in Game 3 on Monday.

It's a double whammy for the Penguins, because Letang's normal defense partner, Olli Maatta, is out with an upper-body injury. He missed Game 3 and is not expected to play in Game 4 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

The Penguins have a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Second Round series, but now they have to prepare to face their biggest challenge, because Letang is their Mr. Everything.

Video: Letang suspended 1 game for interference

He has been on the ice for more than half the series (97:21 of 189:33). He plays in every situation and has seven points in eight Stanley Cup Playoff games, including two assists in three games against Washington.

Letang was a plus-15 in even-strength shot attempts (SAT) in the first two games before being a minus-20 in Game 3, according to War-on-Ice.com. The Penguins, though, were a minus-33 and Letang was on for 11 of their 31 shot attempts at 5-on-5.

"He's impossible to replace, really," Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz said.

Schultz likely will have to try to pull off the impossible, because he's the Pittsburgh defenseman in line to replace Letang.

Video: PIT@NYR, Gm3: Letang pots empty-netter from red line

Schultz has been a healthy scratch since Game 2 of the first round against the New York Rangers. He was passed over when the Penguins had to replace Maatta for Game 3. That task fell to Derrick Pouliot, who played 12:10 over 22 shifts and had three shots on goal and a plus-2 rating.

"I've been skating every day with the guys," Schultz said. "I'm obviously rested and I'll be ready to go if I get the chance."

Schultz, acquired by the Penguins in a trade with he Edmonton Oilers for a third-round draft pick on Feb. 27, said he is motivated to "prove people wrong" about him. He was booed in Edmonton and hasn't had much of an opportunity to make an impact in Pittsburgh yet.

"Just a lot of people don't appreciate my game," Schultz said. "It's about playing the best I can and helping this team win."

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan left open the possibility a player could be recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, but in all likelihood it's going to be Schultz who gets the call in Game 4 to replace Letang. 

Video: Kris Letang speaks to media after Game 3

In fact, Wilkes-Barre is playing in the AHL's Calder Cup Playoffs, coincidentally against Hershey, the Capitals' AHL affiliate, in the Atlantic Division Final. Game 1 is Wednesday.

"We're not going to change our style of play," Sullivan said. "We're not going to change our identity just because one guy comes out of our lineup."

The good news for Sullivan is Schultz has a similar style to Letang's in that he's a puck retriever, puck mover, skater, shooter and power-play specialist. He could in theory go in for Letang on the first power-play unit, although it's possible Trevor Daley will get a look there too.

"When you look at the makeup of our group, the most effective way that we come out of our end zone is through our quickness and our puck-moving ability," Sullivan said. "Justin helps us in that regard."

Pouliot should, too. He's a mobile defenseman who likes to join the rush. Now that he has gotten his Stanley Cup Playoff debut out of the way, he feels he can make a bigger impact.

"I won't be as nervous coming into the next one, but I've got another level of my game," Pouliot said. "You didn't see my best [Monday] night."

Pouliot, like Schultz, Daley and the rest of the Penguins defense corps, which should feature Ben Lovejoy, Ian Cole and Brian Dumoulin, all have to be better than they've been at any point this season when they take the ice for Game 4. It's a tall order, because even with Letang playing Monday, the Penguins were smothered by the Capitals in every area but the scoreboard.

Video: Johansson on Letang hit, Caps talk Gm3 effort

Washington outshot Pittsburgh 49-23 and finished with an 85-36 advantage in total shot attempts, including 64-31 at 5-on-5, according to War-on-Ice.com.

Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray made a career-high 47 saves.

"We made some opportunistic plays and scored goals on some high quality chances and we got a tremendous performance from our goaltender, but we know we're a lot better than that," Sullivan said. "We have to make sure we understand how we have to play and what's brought us success and we've got to get back to that."

Their success is due in large part to Letang and everything he can do, from going back to get the puck, taking a hit to make a play, making a tape-to-tape stretch pass or using his mobility to join the rush, being a shooter on the power play, a presence on the pressuring penalty kill and an antagonist all over the ice.

The Penguins won't have any of that in Game 4. They likely won't have Maatta, either. The challenge for Pittsburgh defense corps won't get any tougher.

"I don't think you can replace a player like [Letang]," Cole said. "You can try to do it by committee, but as hard as he plays, as well as he plays for as long as he plays, it's very, very tough to just replace a guy like that by committee. We're going to try and play our best game, but he's a guy that's very, very tough, if not impossible, to replace."

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