Head coach Mike Sullivan said that Kris Letang will play tonight against the Maple Leafs after missing Sunday’s game against Winnipeg.
“We’re a better team when he’s in our lineup,” Sullivan said. “He’s an impact player.”
Letang played his first game under the Pens’ new bench boss on Saturday in Minnesota after missing six straight with an upper-body injury. He left in the third period after receiving a hit to the head by Wild forward Jarret Stoll.
“I got dinged pretty hard there,” Letang said. “It took me a moment to get back to my senses.”
While Letang said he had an issue with the hit, there isn’t anything he can do about it now.
“I think it was pretty clear on the replay that the only thing he touched was my chin,” Letang said. “It’s in the past already.
While Letang eventually returned to finish the game, he wasn’t feeling well the following morning so the Pens held him out on Sunday against Winnipeg for precautionary reasons. After practicing Tuesday and participating in the morning skate today, the 28-year-old defenseman pronounced himself ready to go.
“I’ve been in every meeting that we’ve done and I’ve been watching all the games,” Letang said. “Obviously it’s not the same as playing but you kind of see and you sense what (Sullivan is) bringing. I had a chance to play in the game in Minnesota and you kind of felt it right away on the bench. It’s a big change and I think it’s going to work.”
Letang skated on a pairing with Olli Maatta and practiced on the first power-play unit with
Sullivan said Marc-Andre Fleury continues to progress in his recovery from a concussion.
“He practiced again today so that’s two days in a row he’s taken shots,” Sullivan said of the goaltender, who has missed the last six games. “He responded really well to the practice yesterday, so that’s great news for us. He’s making progress.”
In the meantime, rookie netminder Matt Murray will get his fourth start of the season tonight against the Maple Leafs.
“They were probably the team that I cheered for growing up,” said the Thunder Bay, Ontario native. “I know my dad was a big fan and I have a lot of family that lives in Toronto. I spent a lot of time there in the summertime training for hockey and stuff so it’s like a second hometown to me.”
After being called up on Dec. 16, Murray started three games in a row from Dec. 19-26, posting a 2-1 record, .934 save percentage and 1.68 goals-against average before backing up Jeff Zatkoff in the Pens’ 1-0 loss to Winnipeg on Saturday. The reigning AHL goaltender of the year said he’s starting to feel more and more comfortable as he spends more time here.
“I think I’ve played decently well and I know that I have what it takes to play at this level,” Murray said. ”I just have to keep maturing and keep working on being consistent and playing my best on a night-to night basis. There’s always ways I could have been better, but I was coming in here trying to prove that I could play in this league and I think I’ve gotten partially on my way to doing that. Still looking to do that going forward here.”
I asked Murray what he’s learned so far over this stretch, and he told me dealing with nerves has been the biggest difference.
“I was definitely pretty nervous my first couple games,” admitted the 21-year-old. “It’s a big deal playing your first NHL game. Dealing with that was a big learning experience. And just all the commotion that comes with being an NHLer. I think I’m learning how to deal with that a lot better here as we move forward and hope to do so continually.”
How exactly does he deal with the butterflies?
“At the end of the day you just kind of got to accept the situation that you’re in and realize what’s the worst that could happen? You just kind of go out and let yourself play,” he smiled. “It’s still hockey. I’ve played thousands of games before in my life, so just kind of go out and have fun, I think.”
The Pens used the following combinations during morning skate…
There’s a number of changes compared to last game, with Wilson slotting in for Plotnikov and Perron and Sheary switching spots. I asked Sullivan what his approach is when mixing and matching lines and taking players in and out of the lineup.
“We try to start with tandems that are complimentary skill sets. We try to move parts around them,” Sullivan replied. "'Sid' has played a lot with Kunitz and they’ve had some chemistry. I think ‘Geno’ Malkin has played a fair amount with Hornqvist. I think Hornqvist is a guy that goes to the net for him. He plays in the battle areas, he retrieves pucks, he helps them keep the puck in those circumstances. Phil Kessel’s played a fair amount with Geno. He’s played a fair amount with Sid.”
At the end of the day, it all comes down to the search for chemistry.
“We’re trying to find a group of some line combinations that make the group better,” he said. “We’ve done some tinkering since we’ve been there. I know certain combinations have been together a lot of this first part of the season with mixed results. We’re trying to find some combinations. Ideally, we’d like to settle into something so we can establish some consistency. But until we find some chemistry that we think makes sense, we’ll probably continue to tinker with it.”