Kris Letang made an interesting case for Penguins teammate Sidney Crosby winning the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP instead of Washington's hard-charging winger Alex Ovechkin, even though he has missed seven games (and counting) after jaw surgery.
"You have to look at where the Capitals are standing right now and us, No. 1 seed," Letang said of the Eastern Conference. "There's the explanation for why he should be MVP."
Flip things just a bit, and a similar case might be made for Letang to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman despite the fact that he has missed 12 games to assorted injuries. But Letang won't crow about himself as he did with Crosby.
"I would be more than happy if people think I deserve it and they vote for me," he said. "It would be a great honor. It's not something I can control."
Penguins vs. Boston Bruins, 7:08 p.m. today, TD Garden, Boston.
- TV, Radio:
Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltender:
Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Tuukka Rask for Bruins.
Have won five games in row. ... Are 12-1 in one-goal games and 10-2 vs. Northeast Division.
Clinched playoff berth Wednesday. ... 13-7-4 in one-goal games and 7-4-2 vs. Atlantic Division.
- Hidden stat:
Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis has six-game points streak (3 goals, 10 points) and is three assist shy of 200 for career.
Both awards are decided in a vote by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
Crosby still led the NHL with 56 points before the Thursday night games. Letang's 33 points ranked him second among defensemen, three behind Montreal's P.K. Subban before games Thursday. He has played in six fewer games than Subban, who missed the first six games this season because of a contract dispute.
Letang averages a robust 25 minutes, 38 seconds of ice time, which leads the team. He has a plus-minus rating of plus-14 heading into the game tonight at Boston and has spent a lot of time on the power-play point when healthy.
In the three games since Letang's latest return (from a toe injury), the Penguins are 6 for 16 (37.5 percent) on the power play. For the season, the power play ranked second at 24 percent before games Thursday.
Points seem to go a long way in Norris voting. Rarely does a strong, stay-at-home defenseman get much mention. Letang holds his own in points.
He doesn't even have to play a game to earn a point. A scoring change made Thursday by the NHL awarded Letang an assist on the Penguins' fifth goal in a 6-4 win Wednesday against Montreal, giving him three assists in the game.
Through the eyes of a rookie defenseman loaded with potential, Letang has it all.
"I think he's one of the best ones in the league," the Penguins' Simon Despres said. "When he plays, he makes it look easy. He moves the puck up [to the forwards] really well, he makes a lot of plays and he's eating a lot of minutes. He's definitely helping our team win."
Letang has missed nine of the past 13 games. Before that, he was leading the NHL in points among defensemen and often mentioned as a leading Norris candidate.
"It's an argument you can make as to whether or not you should still vote for guys if they've missed some time," Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "But, for the time he's been in, he's been, whew, dominant. And consistent. All aspects of his game, too, not just getting points. He controls the game when he's out there."
Like most upper-level two-way defensemen, Letang, who turns 26 next week, is a strong skater who has developed a keen sense of when and how to join the offense. His teammates have learned to circle around to back him up if he strays very far, or even deep, into his offensive end.
"It's a game of reads," Letang said. "You have to make sure you don't take stupid chances. When I have a guy back like that, I can get into the play and try to do something. But, if I have nobody [supporting me], usually I'm going to step back."
While Letang ranks fourth on his team in scoring, Subban leads his team in points. He also has 45 hits, 46 blocked shots, averages 23:01 and has a plus-minus rating of plus-10. Letang has 40 hits, 49 blocked shots.
Perhaps the leading Norris contender in the Western Conference is Minnesota's Ryan Suter, who has 32 points in 43 games, 32 hits, 62 blocked shots, averages 27:11 in ice time and is a plus-2.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he's qualified to judge only players in the Eastern Conference this season. Because of the lockout-shortened schedule, teams aren't playing out of conference, so there's no reason to scout players in the West.
Bylsma cited Letang's proficiency in "all areas of the game. What he brings to our team is at a very high level." He also has been impressed that Letang has three times come back from injury without showing any rust.
"I put him at the top of that list when you talk about defensemen in the Eastern Conference," Bylsma said.
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: email@example.com and Twitter @pgshelly. First Published April 19, 2013 4:00 AM