Letestu getting shot as Penguins' top center

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This is not, Mark Letestu said, what he was expecting when he reported to training camp in September.

And it's not just that he didn't see himself as the Penguins' No. 1 center as they entered the stretch drive.

"I didn't know if I'd be here in March," he said Tuesday, "let alone playing with [Alex] Kovalev."

Letestu, of course, would not be the first choice to work with Kovalev and James Neal on the Penguins' top line. Not under normal circumstances, anyway.

But normalcy was removed from the equation long ago -- when Evgeni Malkin's season was ended by a knee injury, not long after Sidney Crosby's season was put into jeopardy by a concussion.

So when playing Jordan Staal with Neal and Kovalev for two games didn't yield satisfactory results, coach Dan Bylsma decided to plug Letestu into that spot, with Staal returning to his usual place with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, for the Penguins' game tonight at Toronto.


Game: Penguins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7:08 p.m. today, Air Canada Centre.

TV, radio, Internet: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9), www.penguins.nhl.com.

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. James Reimer for Maple Leafs.

Penguins: Have not won game in regulation since Feb. 4. ... D Zbynek Michalek's next assist will be his 100th in NHL. ... Are allowing average of 2.44 goals per game, fifth-lowest figure in league.

Maple Leafs: Own 14-11-7 record at home, including 6-5 shootout loss to Penguins Saturday. ... Luke Schenn leads NHL defensemen with 198 hits. ... Have scored first in just 26 of 63 games.

Of note: Despite not playing since Jan. 5, Sidney Crosby still leads Penguins with 28 road points.

How long Letestu will keep that job depends on how he performs, but he clinched an audition with his work in the Penguins' 6-5 victory against the Maple Leafs Saturday at the Air Canada Centre, when he had a goal and an assist in his first game back after missing nearly a month with a knee injury.

"He played extremely well in his first game back," Bylsma said. "Probably got a little more [ice] time than I had anticipated."

Probably not as much, however, as he will in his new assignment. Letestu played just under 14 minutes in his return; something closer to 18, or more, seems more likely tonight.

"Eighteen's a lot for me," he said. "I'm sure Dan will keep an eye on that, mix guys in here and there. ... Maybe I'll get to playing great, and he'll keep throwing me out there."

The good thing is, Letestu won't have to waste any playing time introducing himself to his linemates. Kovalev acknowledged Tuesday that while he knew nothing about Letestu -- not even that he existed, apparently -- before being acquired from Ottawa Thursday, but said he quickly came to appreciate his skill level, and the way Letestu finds holes and takes straight-line paths to the net.

Neal, meanwhile, said he was well aware of Letestu long before general manager Ray Shero brought him in from Dallas last Monday.

"I know he's underrated, a very skilled guy," Neal said. "Good shot. Great skill. Just from watching the Penguins, he's a guy you don't hear much about.

"He's a skilled guy. He brings guys to him and dishes the puck. He does those little things well."

How Letestu jells with Neal might well determine how long he stays on that line. Kovalev can be more of an independent operator in the offensive zone, but Neal looks as if he'll be most effective when matched with a center who can get him the puck.

Letestu not only is a good passer, but as a right-handed shot, will be able to feed Neal pucks on his forehand. That's significant because most players are more adept at making crisp, accurate passes on the forehand than on the backhand.

Trying to help Neal regain his goal-scoring touch will be one of Letestu's first big challenges. Shero traded for Neal, in part, because of his scoring ability, but Neal had only one goal in his final 11 games with the Stars and none in his first three with the Penguins.

While no one seems overly concerned about Neal's dry spell -- he noted that he has run hot and cold throughout his career --there's sure to be some relief when he breaks out of it.

Which, Neal reckons, could happen pretty soon.

"Obviously, it's been an adjustment here, but I've felt I had good chances and am shooting the puck well, going to the net well," he said.

"I just haven't found that one bounce that I need, but I'm sure it will come here soon. At the same time, you can't dwell on it, that you're not scoring. As long as the team's winning, you're happy."

Then again, the chances of the Penguins winning with any sort of regularity figure to be linked, in part, to how often Neal can score.

Scoring goals isn't quite as critical a part of Letestu's job description, but he believes playing with Neal and Kovalev will give him the chance -- and obligation -- to be more involved with the offense.

"They're dangerous," he said. "Every time they get the puck, you get the feeling that something's going to happen.

"Now that I have a chance with two pretty skilled players, there are no excuses for me. I have to put up some points."

Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com . First Published March 2, 2011 5:00 AM


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