While forward Nick Bonino spoke to reporters at a podium on Sunday afternoon at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, on the ice surface across the hall the Pens were holding an optional practice.
Participating were the players who did not skate in Saturday night’s Game 2 at Verizon Center, and defenseman Kris Letang – who played literally over half the game, establishing a new career high with 35:22 minutes in the 2-1 win over the Capitals that evened the series at 1-1.
“We thought he needed a little bit more work,” Bonino joked.
Bonino marveled at Letang’s performance (which included a plus-2 rating, 6 shots on net and five blocked) – especially in an intense, emotional playoff game on the road against the NHL’s best team with the Pens using just five defensemen for most of the night after Olli Maatta was injured on a hit from former teammate Brooks Orpik in the opening minutes.
“Some games you play 12 minutes and it feels like you’ve played 25, so I know a few guys were joking he played three games worth of hockey for some of us last night,” Bonino said. “You see him playing 35 minutes and they’re not easy minutes.
“He’s getting hit, he’s up the ice, he’s back down the ice first. Yesterday, especially with five D he really carried the load back there. All five D did a hell of a job and ‘Tanger’ has been like that all year for us, and people are starting to really see it lately.”
As crazy as it sounds to those who don’t watch the Pens on a regular basis, performances like this aren’t unusual for Letang.
He finished the regular season ranked fourth in time on ice per game, topping the 30-minute mark six times down the stretch – including his previous personal best of 35:14 minutes on March 29 vs. Buffalo.
“There aren’t too many players, I think, that can handle those kinds of minutes night in and night out like Kris can,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s a very efficient player. He’s a great skater and I think he’s an elite defenseman. I’ve said this all along, I don’t think Kris gets the credit he deserves for the type of defenseman that he is and the importance that he is to our team and helping this team win.”
With Maatta leaving Saturday’s game as early as he did, the blueliners had time to mentally prepare themselves for the job ahead of them in terms of spreading out his ice time.
After the first period, the team had a discussion in the locker room about making sure they didn’t turn pucks over because on the back end, they wanted to change quick and have short shifts.
The D then did a tremendous job of shutting it down through the first 40 minutes, holding the Caps to just 10 shots. But Washington, arguably the league’s best third period team, turned it on in that final frame.
“It’s tough, especially when you’re a team that wants to play fast and get your D in the rush. But I think we did a great job overall,” Letang said. “In the first and second, those minutes were easier. We had five) power plays, we had control of the puck, we were in the offensive zone.
“In the third, you’re battling in front of the net, you’re battling in the corner, it drains out your energy. You don’t keep track of the minutes, but you definitely know what kinds of minutes are hard and what kinds of minutes are pretty easy.”
After Letang’s heavy night, the Pens had a 45-minute bus ride to the airport, where they boarded a plane for Pittsburgh and didn’t land until around 2 a.m.
“I got home, tried to watch a little bit of TV and relax,” Letang said.
He then made his way over to Cranberry, put on his gear and was right back on the ice a mere 12 hours after getting back into town following his big performance.
“Kris has a routine that he likes for him as far as his recovery,” Sullivan said. “Part of his recovery process is some active exercise. He’s comfortable with a certain routine that he’s in right now and we’re certainly not going to disrupt that.”
The coach said he has talked with his player about making sure Letang doesn’t overdo it.
“Certainly we realize the minutes he is playing,” Sullivan said. “So we talk a lot about making sure that we give him the right rest and recovery time so that he can be at his best for the next game.”
Letang plans to do just that, by skating today and taking the option during Monday’s morning skate heading into Game 3.
“Not many guys are out there, so I can work on different things I want to do,” he said. “I have more time, more reps that you can go through. I think certain guys are different. They need a little bit more time off the ice. Some guys, they get re-energized by skating out there and burning off a little bit of calories.”