While Kris Letang will not be in the lineup for tonight’s Game 4 after being suspended for his hit on Marcus Johansson, none of the guys on the Pens’ blue line are going to try to be Kris Letang in his absence. As Beyonce once sang, he’s irreplaceable.
“We’ve talked a lot about just staying in the moment and doing your job and not trying to do too much,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think sometimes in the playoff atmosphere, when you try to do too much that’s when it gets you in trouble. That’s when the magnitude of errors occurs, whether it be a bad turnover at the wrong area of the rink or the wrong time in the game.
“Our mantra for a long time here has been take what the game gives us. We’re just going to be ourselves, we’re going to play our game, we’re going to try and play to our strengths and we’ll see where it goes.”
Letang has logged monster minutes for the Pens during his Norris-caliber season, finishing the year ranked fourth in the NHL in time on ice per game. He has averaged 29:13 during the postseason, including a career-high 35:22 in Pittsburgh’s Game 2 win.
The defensemen know those minutes will have to be spread out amongst them, and they’re ready to absorb the extra time and responsibility.
“It’s not going to be easy, but I think it’s going to have to be by committee,” Ian Cole said. “Everybody’s going to get a little chunk and everyone’s going to need to do a great job every shift.”
Cole went on to say that their mindset will be to change quickly and make sure they don’t have any extended shifts on the ice.
“That’s what kills you as the game goes on, if you’re out there for a minute-and-a-half, two minutes,” he said. “Those really take their toll as the game wears on. I think we have six guys who are more than capable of excelling in this league and excelling in these playoff hockey games, so being able to use every guy and make sure we get quick shifts and no one’s getting stuck in their D zone, I think that’s going to be huge.”
* It’s not just that Letang logs big minutes – he does so in every situation, especially on the power play. Right now, he leads the team with an average of 4:26 minutes per game on theman-advantage in these playoffs.
Trevor Daley slotted into his spot on the first power-play unit with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist.
“I’m looking forward to just helping out wherever I can,” Daley said. “It’s not about getting on the first unit or the second unit. If I can help out, then that’s what I want to do.
Both Derrick Pouliot and Justin Schultz practiced on the second power-play unit with Nick Bonino, Conor Sheary and Chris Kunitz.
Pouliot made his NHL postseason debut in Game 3, finishing with a plus-2 in 12:10 minutes of ice time. It was the 22-year-old’s first game action since dressing for the regular-season finale on April 9 in Philadelphia.
“It’s crazy how much the speed and the physicality picks up compared to the regular season,” he said. “I felt a little rusty, especially in the first period. It’s been a while since I’d played. I thought I settled in a little better in the second and actually felt the best in the third.”
Pouliot admitted to being nervous heading into the matchup, which is completely understandable. As Daley said with a smile, “He comes in at round two with his first game of the playoffs against the best team in hockey.”
But now that Pouliot has the first one out of the way, he feels ready to step up and handle the bigger role that will be coming his way with Letang out.
“I’ve got another level of my game,” Pouliot said. “You didn’t see my best (Monday) night. But hopefully I’ll get better as the series goes on.”
Meanwhile, Schultz will likely slot in tonight for the first time since Game 1 against the New York Rangers.
“I’ll be ready,” he said. “You obviously want to be out there, it’s the best time of the year. Hopefully I can be effective when I get the chance. Getting back, getting the puck up and jumping up into the rush, creating offense, I think that’s the strength of my game so if I do that I definitely can be effective.”
* The Dpairs looked like this…
(Steve Oleksy, called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Tuesday, skated alongside Letang, who is allowed to practice with the team while suspended).
If that is the group of six they go with, there’s a couple reunions happening when it comes to who skates with whom. But as Sullivan has repeated numerous times, the D-pairs tend to change throughout the game – and the guys are fine with that.
“One of the best parts about our D core is that I’m pretty much comfortable playing with anybody,” Lovejoy said. “We’ve mixed and matched all year, and I think everybody’s goal as a defenseman is to be an easy guy to play with. That’s a big part of what we’ve done, and whoever we’re out there with, we’re going to go out and do our best.”
* Both Eric Fehr and Bryan Rust were absent from morning skate, and Sullivan said they will be game-time decisions.
The lines looked like this…
Rookie forward Oskar Sundqvist hasn’t played since making his NHL playoff debut in Game 1 of the First Round against the New York Rangers, but he’s prepared to get back into action if called upon.
“We’ve been working hard, the guys that haven’t played,” he said. “The only thing that will be a little bit tough is it was a couple of weeks since I last played a game, but I’ll just have to be mentally prepared and try to get into the game as fast as possible.”
When I asked if it helps that it’s been a physical series, he laughed and said, “Yeah, you’ll probably get a wakeup call right away.”
The 22-year-old has played mostly center since coming to North America from Sweden, but is comfortable going to the wing if necessary.
“I played two-and-a-half years in Sweden as a wing,” Sundqvist said, who helped Skelleftea win back-to-back Swedish Elite League championships during his 2-plus seasons there.
“That’s when it all started, because we had such a good center corps down in Sweden and they wanted me to play wing, especially when I was that young coming up on their first team.
“I’m comfortable playing wing. It’s a little bit faster here, but I know where I should be on the ice so that wouldn’t be any problem.”
Another guy who could slot in is big forward Tom Sestito, who would certainly embrace the physicality of this series.
“It might suit me better,” he said. “I’m just going to go out there and play hard and just play my game.”
Sullivan, on the decision to continue going with Murray over Fleury: “Matt is obviously playing some really good hockey right now and Marc is trying to establish his game and hasn’t played in a while. So with as well as Matt is playing, common sense would suggest that we should probably stay with him. But having said that, we think we have two really good goalies that we can rely on to help us win.”
Sullivan, on the message to his guys after Game 3: “I didn’t have to tell them much. We know it wasn’t our best game. 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. We showed that in the first two games. I think we were the better team in the first two games; I think Washington was the better team in Game 3. For me, we just 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. Our players understand it. I think the resolve that this group has shown and the response that they have shown over the last 3, 4 months, I would expect that we would have that same response.”
Lovejoy, on Letang’s suspension: “Since Christmas time, the guys in this room have been on a mission to control what we can control. We can’t let outside factors dictate how we play, how we approach the game. The NHL deem that Kris is out for one game. They’re doing their job. Our job is to go out and rally as 20 guys and go out and try to win the game tonight.”
Crosby, on playing without Letang: “I think just play the same way. You always know who you’re out there with as far as D-pairings and forward combinations (are concerned), that kind of thing, so you’re aware of who likes to jump in the rush and who doesn’t. ‘Tanger’ is a guy who’s usually up there all the time and you’re aware of that, but if you’re not out with him then you adjust accordingly. That’s the only difference if you’re playing with other pairings and things like that.”
Sheary, on his line’s play: “It’s been a lot of ups and downs. A lot of people will look at the stats and see that we haven’t scored much or that we’ve been out against a lot of goals against. But I think we’ve just got to stick with our game and I think we know we can play offense. We’re out there against their top line too, we know they’re going to get opportunities. I think we just need to hone in on our defense and make sure we’re keyed in there and I think the offense will come. We’re getting opportunities, we’ve just got to bear down in those situations and hopefully the next game or two we can do that.”