Ron Cook: A Letang absence will be challenging for Penguins

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They won a game in Montreal, 7-6. They climbed out of a 4-1 hole to win in Philadelphia, 5-4. They beat Boston, 3-2, and Toronto, 3-1, to become the first team in NHL history to rally in the third period for consecutive wins after being shut out in the first two periods. They pitched a 3-0 shutout against the New York Rangers.

But the ninth win of the Penguins' nine-game winning streak -- 2-1 against Boston Sunday afternoon at Consol Energy Center -- was the most impressive, by far. They didn't just beat the team that many believe is the Eastern Conference's best for the second time in six days. They did it without league most valuable player Evgeni Malkin, who missed his fifth consecutive game with an apparent shoulder injury, and Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang, who didn't play the final two periods after leaving with an apparent leg injury.

"I think it's huge," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "You never know what's going to happen in the playoffs. If you lose one guy or the other, it gives you a little extra confidence in the back of your mind that you still can win."

The Penguins are all too used to being without Malkin. They are 5-0 in this absence after going 2-2 when he was out earlier this season with a concussion. They are 45-30-6 without him in his career, including playoff games.

The Penguins also have played way too many games without captain Sidney Crosby, although, happily for them, none this season. They are 84-47-16 when he's out of the lineup.

And you ask: What's the team's record when neither Malkin nor Crosby plays? It's better than you might guess. It's 26-17-5, including the seven-game playoff series loss in 2011 to Tampa Bay.

Playing without Letang might be even more challenging.

"It's a lot different without him," Orpik said. "Obviously, he's our best puck-mover and he eats a lot of minutes."

Letang is the NHL's leading points scorer among defensemen with three goals and 25 assists. He also leads the Penguins in ice time, averaging more than 26 minutes per game. It's no wonder the team went 1-2 without him earlier this season when he was out with a lower-body injury and played two of its worst games on consecutive days against New Jersey.

"No one is going to replace him," Orpik said of Letang. "If you try to do what he does, you're probably going to make mistakes and not look too good doing it. You're going to get extra minutes, but you can't try to do too much. You just have to do what you can do within your skill set to the best of your ability."

That's just what the Penguins did against Boston. They took a 2-1 lead late in the first period and hung on for the win. The five remaining defensemen played starring roles. Paul Martin played more than 10 minutes in the second period and more than 11 in the third, finishing with 30:02 of ice time. Matt Niskanen played more than 18 minutes in the final two periods, Orpik more than 17. Mark Eaton and Deryk Engelland each were on the ice more than usual.

Orpik was too pleased with the Penguins' defensive performance to feel exhausted. He had seven hits and blocked six shots.

"It's a lot more fun to play these games than 7-6 games. It's easy for the D-men when you're not seeing so many odd-man rushes. I'm sure the goaltenders will tell you the same thing."

Everyone agrees the Penguins became more honest defensively after they fell behind Philadelphia, 4-1, March 7 in the first period. They shut the Flyers out the rest of the way and held them to 14 shots in the final two periods.

"It's been pretty good for five or six games now," Orpik said. "It's just a matter of being a little more patient. The talent we have, we know we're going to score goals. It's not a matter of scoring goals. It's a matter of keeping 'em out of our net."

All of it -- the winning streak, the improved defense, the two impressive wins against Boston -- had Penguins general manager Ray Shero smiling on his way to the locker room. He talked of centers Dustin Jeffrey and Joe Vitale taking advantage of more playing time with Malkin out. Vitale scored the winning goal Sunday, his first of the season. Shero mentioned how Tyler Kennedy really "has lifted his game." He spoke of the development of young defenseman Simon Despres, who was scratched against Boston but should see more ice time if Letang is out for any length. Shero talked of better goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury and backup Tomas Vokoun, who stopped all but one of 32 shots he faced from the Bruins.

"The bottom line is we're finding ways to win," Shero said.

The Washington Capitals are next, Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center. Neither Shero nor coach Dan Bylsma had an update about the status of Malkin and Letang for that game. It's nice to think one or both of the players will be ready. But if not? The rest of the team is planning on showing up, anyway.

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Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published March 18, 2013 4:00 AM


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