Collier: Letang & Co. execute objective


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Kris Letang had the puck near the high interior arc of the left faceoff circle, early in the second period, and he was dragging it, dragging it, dragging it toward the center dot with the kind of mounting menace someone once called malice aforethought.

In a blink, or some insane measurement that equals less than a blink, that puck was in the net behind playoff veteran Evgeni Nabokov, the suddenly beleaguered goalkeeper of the New York Islanders.

If Nabokov even saw Letang's shot, there was no visual evidence of it, and there was even less of any tangible sense that he could have done anything about it if he had.

"It's a 5-on-3 [situation] so you don't have that much pressure," Letang said with an invisible shrug. "It's fun to get the puck as close as that, so you just wait for an opening or a passing lane. I was looking to pass first because we just made a quick play down low. I was waiting for a pass but after a while I just looked off the goalie, and just shot it."

The wicked wrister was the 26-year-old's 11th career playoff goal; only Larry Murphy had more among Penguins defensemen. But Letang wore his typical expression, the one that says whatever is going on around him is pretty much the way things ought to be. Thirty-two seconds later, Pascal Dupuis swept home a rebound to make it 4-0 and Game 1 was in the Penguins' bag.

If Letang wants to take a few seconds to torture the netminder in a game when the Penguins are getting five goals without even having to give Sidney Crosby a uniform, that's apparently his prerogative, but here's another way, the most important way, in which Letang and defensive partners Paul Martin and/or Mark Eaton figure into they way things ought to be in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma put Letang and Martin on the ice against New York's splendid top line of John Tavares, Brad Boyes and Matt Moulsen and kept them there. The sounds of silence that pervaded that gambit got interrupted only when Letang banged Tavares into the boards or when Tavares tried to bump Letang off the puck behind the Penguins net and wound up his can.

Through two periods, Letang had been on the ice longer than anyone except Marc-Andre Fleury, Martin only slightly less, and both were on the pond almost as long as Nabokov, who retired to the bench after failing to stop four of the Penguins' first 15 shots.

By comparison, Fleury was kept relative inactive while the teammates in front of him kept forcing New York's forwards to the perimeters.

"Nothin' too specific," said Eaton, whose second-period assist was his first point of the season. "We just wanted to be aware when we had the puck, and be aware when [Tavares] was on the ice. The best way to defend those guys is to make them play in the defensive zone.

"We just tried to manage the puck and make them play a 200-foot game most of the night. It's a good start for us, but that's all it is, a good start. It's one game."

Too true, but the obvious impact of having the gifted Tavares held not only goalless but stone shotless can't be overstated, nor perhaps, can the value of putting a shutout in his head at the top of the series. Still, in a game which the Penguins were without not only Crosby but also defensive cornerstone Brooks Orpik, Letang's brilliance was the primary impetus that resulted in a 1-0 best-of-seven series lead.

"I think we tried to take their time and space away," Letang said. "Either by having a good gap or being physical with them. They have a really good line there with Tavares, Boyes and Moulson and if you take their time away, they won't be as effective."

This too, if you listen to the paid prognosticators, is the way things ought to be, and it's anything but a surprise when you consider that the skunking of the Islanders Wednesday night was the 16th time the Penguins have beaten this team in the past 18 matches inside the city limits.

That does nothing, of course, to lessen the distance between the Penguins and their mission in this first round. All it means is that an ability to execute one major objective has been demonstrated, and is to shut down the top New York line.

"There are other dangerous guys, too," Bylsma said. "[But] Tavares is a guy we have to be very careful of. I thought we did a good job of doing that [Wednesday night] and at both ends of the rink."

mobilehome - penguins - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. First Published May 2, 2013 4:00 AM


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