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Mark Madden: Penguins’ Kris Letang deserves more credit |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Penguins’ Kris Letang deserves more credit

Mark Madden
| Friday, December 21, 2018 6:53 p.m
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
The Penguins’ Kris Letang fights for the puck after being turned away by Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid in the first period Monday, Nov. 5, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

Sidney Crosby is the Pittsburgh Penguins’ best player and arguably (still) hockey’s best.

But if Crosby gets hurt, Evgeni Malkin is a reasonable facsimile despite his current struggles.

Kris Letang, however, is the Penguins’ least replaceable player.

Don’t babble about winning the Stanley Cup in 2017 with Letang hurt. That was then. This is now. These Penguins don’t have Ian Cole, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey or (for now) Justin Schultz.

Letang’s value has been evident all season. Having finally shed the residue of his 2017 neck surgery, Letang is operating like a Norris Trophy candidate (save a penchant for the rare nightmarish game). Letang is plus-7, and his 27 points rank him seventh among NHL defensemen.

Letang’s worth was on obvious display during Wednesday’s electric 2-1 victory at Washington.

The Penguins found themselves down to five defensemen when Jamie Oleksiak was concussed by a Tom Wilson punch inside the first minute. Letang played 32 minutes, 22 seconds, assisted on the Penguins’ first goal, and was plus-one.

Looking beyond stats, Letang managed the puck with ruthless efficiency, making just one giveaway. Most important, Letang was often on the ice against Washington sniper Alex Ovechkin and all but put Ovechkin in his back pocket.

It was a terrific performance and hardly an easy one.

“Obviously, we all know about (Ovechkin’s) shot,” Letang said Thursday after the Penguins beat visiting Minnesota, 2-1. “You have to take his time and space away.

“But if you can get under his skin and stay in his face … he’s a guy that brings so much energy, and he’s emotional on the ice. But sometimes that can work against you. So I try to get him off his game, but he’s still really dangerous.”

Ovechkin was hardly invisible. He had five shots on goal and six hits. But he didn’t have his usual clinical precision. Ovechkin saw his six-game goal-scoring streak and 14-game point streak both fizzle, and that was largely because of Letang.

Letang can skate with Ovechkin and hit with Ovechkin, and he’s not afraid of Ovechkin like (honestly) so many are.

Letang went nose-to-nose with Ovechkin just 4 minutes, 5 seconds into the game. Each drew a roughing penalty.

Letang is strong, but “I wouldn’t say I’m as strong as (Ovechkin). He’s 250, so he’s got 50 pounds on me. But I like the physical game.”

The day belonged to the Penguins, and ended with Ovechkin breaking his stick over the boards. Crosby-Ovechkin is the marquee matchup, but Letang-Ovechkin may be the more tangible matchup. Letang won this round.

Letang doesn’t get the credit he deserves and may never. Crosby and Malkin cast a long shadow. Letang has been a finalist for the Norris Trophy (NHL’s best defenseman) only once, in 2013. He has inexplicably never represented Canada in an Olympics or World Cup of Hockey. (But, as Letang has pointed out, Canada still wins.) But Letang is an all-time Penguin great, and his performances right now are often epic. He’s a workhorse and thoroughbred simultaneously.

About all those minutes of ice time: Every season, the GM and coach say Letang is going to play less.

Every season, Letang ends up playing just as much, if not more.

Letang, 31, is averaging 26:08 of ice so far this season. That’s well above his career average of 23:45 and would be the second-highest mark of his career.

Letang followed up his ice-time marathon at Washington by skating 26:37 vs. Minnesota. He was plus-2.

“If somebody goes down, everybody has to step up,” Letang said, referring to Oleksiak’s injury at Washington.

True. But Letang loves all that playing time.

“I do. I do,” Letang acknowledged, laughing. “But I like the day off following it.”

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