After the Penguins lost Game 1 of their Second Round Stanley Cup playoff matchup with the New York Rangers, the team desperately needed to win Game 2 to avoid a home sweep.
Pittsburgh needed its best players to step up more than ever. And that’s exactly what happened.
Much has already been written about the standout performances of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, as well as the contributions of others.
But one player that really helped change the course of this series was defenseman Kris Letang.
In the critical Game 2 contest Letang scored the game’s first goal – which would be the eventual game-winner – while cutting to the net and snapping a centering pass to a crashing Chris Kunitz. The puck went off the stick of New York’s Dan Girardi and through goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Even though it wasn’t the plan, the goal was a result of Letang aggressively joining the rush and creating opportunities.
“It’s easier when I move my feet than when I stay standing still,” Letang said. “I’m not like a guy like (Rob Scuderi) backward skating all game and making big plays with his stick. I need to skate forward and make plays when I’m on the rush and supporting guys.”
Letang would also set up the final two Penguins’ goals to finish with three points on the night. The most impressive was his assist on Malkin’s empty-net goal that sealed the Penguins’ 3-0 win and evened the series at 1-1. The Penguins were stuck in the defensive zone when Letang sprinted toward the blue line for a loose puck. He dove on the ice and swatted the puck out of the zone. Malkin would locate it and score. It was a stellar defensive play that was rewarded with an assist.
Letang followed that up with another strong performance in Game 3, working as a shutdown pair with Paul Martin. He finished with a plus-1 rating in 24:31 minutes of ice time as Pittsburgh won 2-0 to take a 2-1 series lead.
The fact that Letang is even able to play – let alone at the level he’s displayed in Games 2 and 3 – is remarkable. After all, there were questions about whether or not he would play hockey again ever due to a stroke he suffered Jan. 29.
Letang was on blood-thinners for six weeks. He returned to skating and practicing after that six-week period and made a triumphant return April 9 vs. Detroit.
“A month ago I didn’t anticipate or think about him playing one game,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “It wasn’t part of the thought process in terms of our team. We knew what the doctors said and the situation he was in. We didn’t put any thought into him being back in 10 weeks and playing at a high level.”
There were some bumps along the way. Letang struggled at the onset of the postseason, and even received a lecture from his head coach in regards to a few penalties he took.
Letang said part of the problem was mental.
“I’m not going to lie, the first four games of the playoffs I was scared to make mistakes,” Letang said. “I got criticism last year on my defensive play so I was a little bit on my heels, trying to accomplish too much.”
Letang started by concentrating on cleaning up his defensive play. Late in the Columbus series he went over the boards with a defense-first mentality. Once his defensive play improved, he started to once again assert himself on the rush and creating offense.
“I was trying to play my game,” Letang said. “My game is playing aggressive, skating and being in the play all the time, supporting my forwards. Once I was able to do that my game kind of changed.”
Bylsma saw the transformation in his game. And part of it may be his defensive partner.
“Kris did learn to trust his game a little bit more as he got his feet wet,” Bylsma said. “Last night the way he defended with his skating was huge for us. Playing next to Paul (Martin) has been really good for us back there. That pairing defensively shut down, but also what he brings to our team has been really good.”
Letang, who worked with Scuderi at the start of the postseason, switched to partner with Martin after Brooks Orpik was knocked out of the lineup with an undisclosed injury.
“Playing with ‘Paulie’ is different than playing with ‘Scuds,’” Letang said. “Scuds stays back and makes plays from the backend. With Paulie, we understand each other pretty well. We play the same type of game. It’s been good. We’re reading each other pretty well.”
The Penguins are ecstatic with Letang’s play, but more so happy just have him back.
“It’s just a blessing to see him out there playing and playing at the level he is for our team and playing so many minutes,” Bylsma said. “It’s nothing more than a blessing that he’s out there playing for us.”