PITTSBURGH -- The perception was the Pittsburgh Penguins would be without defenseman Kris Letang at the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Instead, Letang is playing and rounding into shape entering the Eastern Conference Second Round.
Letang had a stroke in late January that put his hockey future into doubt. A little over two months later, he returned against the Detroit Red Wings on April 9. His performance was surprisingly crisp in Pittsburgh's final three regular-season games, with one goal and four points.
That did not carry into the first few games of the Penguins' Eastern Conference First Round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Letang was criticized following his Game 1 performance after committing two turnovers, one that led to a shorthanded goal for Columbus forward Derek MacKenzie, and two reactionary penalties in the offensive zone.
Following three more lackluster performances, Letang regained his form in Game 5, after being separated from defense partner Rob Scuderi and paired with Paul Martin. Letang scored his only goal of the series in Pittsburgh's 3-1 victory, and the usually offensive-minded defenseman's work on the back end gained praise throughout the Penguins' locker room.
"Kris, much like our team, his best games were 5 and 6 for our group, without a question," coach Dan Bylsma said. "It did coincide with him getting paired with Paul Martin. … We had matchups going into that game, but getting in that pair and being a shutdown pair with Paul, I think elevated his game.
"He's a little bit different than Paul. There's a little more dynamic flair to his game. His jersey and his hair seem to fly a little bit more when he's skating up the ice with the puck."
Letang's solid defensive play, along with the rise in performance of his fellow defensemen in the absence of injured Brooks Orpik, led to two wins in which Pittsburgh outshot Columbus 79-51. Martin said more pressure was placed on Letang, who logged more than 24 minutes in each of the last two games, without Orpik in the lineup.
"With Brooks out, he's kind of our key guy back there," Martin said. "I think it gives responsibility for other guys to step up, and I think Kris did that. I played with him the last couple games and we were able to get some of those minutes that maybe he wasn't getting before. So with that responsibility, I think he handled it well."
Letang has been willing to play physically since returning, including getting into an altercation with Philadelphia Flyers forward Scott Hartnell in Pittsburgh's 4-3 loss on April 12. Defenseman Matt Niskanen said Letang must have that mindset entering the second round if the Penguins are to advance.
"We're going to need it," Niskanen said. "This time of year, you can't have guys playing just OK if you want to win. If you're going to play just OK, then it's up in the air. If you want to win, everyone's got to play really well. I wasn't worried about Kris. I knew he was going to get there.
"He wasn't playing terrible by any means. But he, like all of us, we all had another level."