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Pens defense overcoming the odds

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

There's no doubt which Pens' player is the leader on defense. 

Kris Letang is the most gifted blueliner on the roster and he showed why during the 2016 Stanley Cup title run, averaging a ridiculous 28:52 minutes per game and scoring the Cup-winning goal in Game 6 at San Jose.

Or as fellow defenseman Brian Dumoulin said: "If you look at last year's playoffs it was Kris Letang and then the rest of us."

But Letang has missed 41 games this year due to various injuries and has been out since Feb. 25 due to a herniated disc in his neck. Without their best defenseman the burden of his minutes and contributions have fallen to team's other blueliners.

"No one is going to replace him. We know that," Dumoulin said. "We have to rally together, play well as a group. Everyone just do what they do best. I think that's how we approached it."

Pittsburgh amazingly went 13-7-3 down the regular-season stretch while missing Letang, as well as Olli Maatta (22 games missed) and Trevor Daley (20).

But the group of defensemen banded together and shouldered the burden with half of their members missing.

"We have a group back there that cares about each other, that plays within their limitations, I think that's the key," said assistant coach Jacques Martin, who works with the team's defensemen. "They've been able to raise their level of play. When you lose a key player it requires your players to give you a little more."

The Pens have not only overcome the loss of their most important player on the backend, but have managed to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year.

And a lot of credit belongs to the team's blueliners - Dumoulin, Maatta, Daley, Ian Cole, Justin Schultz, Ron Hainsey, Chad Ruhwedel, Mark Streit - that have raised their game in Letang's absence.

Schultz took Letang's spot at the midpoint position on the top power-play unit. And Letang's minutes have been evenly disseminated down the lineup.

The remaining defenders aren't used to playing the heavy workload of minutes that Letang plays. Instead of having any one player handle those minutes, the Pens have distributed those minutes among the six members.

Dumoulin leads the way with 21:55 minutes per game. But the sixth man, Cole, has 19:09 minutes. So there isn't much discrepancy as the team rolls through its three defensive pairings.

"On an individual basis I think we really look at sharing the responsibilities, using our three pairs," Martin said. "Without Kris Letang other people have filled in and given us some good minutes."

It is Martin's job to make sure those minutes are evenly distributed during the game. But on two occasions this postseason the Pens lost one of their defensemen in the first period due to an injury.

The five remaining blueliners had to handle playing extra minutes, and even taking shifts on their offside. The group of five gutted it out and won both contests for Pittsburgh.

"When you lose players early in a game that means having to go with five," Martin said. "I have tremendous respect for our five guys that have played extra minutes and in different positions. But we were able to win both of those games."

The Pens have done an admirable job of overcoming injuries throughout the season. But what this group of defensemen has done without its leader and other injuries affecting the group is simply remarkable.

But more will be needed from the team's defensive unit if they are to make history and become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. They believe they are up to the task. 

"Our defense is confident in all of us," Dumoulin said. "So far it seems to be working so we just have to continue in that aspect."

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