The Penguins' Kris Letang (58) and fellow defenseman Matt Niskanen seem to be moving in opposite directions after Game 1 against Columbus.
By Gene Collier / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
That search for things the Penguins can improve on from Game 1 to Game 2 in this playoff series with the Columbus Blue Jackets did not exactly require assistance from trained special ops among the local authorities.
The Metropolitan Division champions are practically tripping over evidence that their overall performance in a 4-3 victory Wednesday night was by several metrics substandard -- getting outshot, 34-31, outhit, 48-27, and unnerved enough to give the puck away 10 times, for examples -- but the guy wearing the yoke of resultant discipline appeared to be Kris Letang, pretty much by his own self.
Between regular meetings at the grease board he has mounted on the glass near center ice, Dan Bylsma dress rehearsed two power-play units at practice Friday, each bearing a conspicuous alteration.
Letang was no longer on the first unit, and Matt Niskanen was no longer on the second. Those were the guys Bylsma flipped after Letang's Game 1 flop.
"I made a mistake that put my team in trouble," Letang told a post-practice media thicket grown out to full postseason dimensions. "You have to make sure these mistakes don't repeat themselves."
Letang was reporting the essential results of a meeting just hours earlier with Bylsma, who called Letang's slashing penalty to the belly of Boone Jenner with the score tied, 3-3, "undisciplined," and did not take any pains to distinguish it from the interference penalty Letang took subsequently, with the Penguins protecting a 4-3 lead.
"He understands that play, and maybe the other plays in the game that he would like to have back weren't good plays; he knew that right away," Bylsma said of Friday's meeting. "When I think about Kris Letang at his best, and it's something we reference very often, [it] is his play in the '09 playoffs with [defense mate] Mark Eaton and how he played the role he played, particularly in the finals, when he was playing against a Detroit team whose third line consisted mainly of [Marian] Hossa. That was his matchup and he focused on playing defense, defending and defending well, and playing defense first.
"I know because I've heard Brooks Orpik say it often. When Kris is playing well, he's playing defense first."
Well that was five years ago this spring, so the distance between consistent application of that lesson appears somewhat yawning.
I suppose Letang was playing defense in the neutral zone Wednesday night, or was just caught in mid yawn, when Sidney Crosby tried to get the puck to him back across the blue line as the Penguins tried to reconfigure their power play. But Letang wound up playing caboose on a train named Derek Mackenzie, who picked Letang's pocket and roared in on the Penguins net.
Mackenzie's goal made it 3-1 Blue Jackets and would have set the table for the first playoff victory in the history of the Columbus franchise had it not been for Niskanen.
"My role is kind of from the fact that I seem to be in a shooter's position a lot and, to be honest, I think that's why I'm out there," Niskanen said about his inflated power-play presence. "We've got a lot of other guys who can make good passes, set people up. I don't have elite talent like some of these players do, so the reason I'm out there is to deliver the puck to the net and create chances that way."
Niskanen delivered unto Beau Bennett's stick right there in front of Sergei Bobrovsky just 56 seconds after the Mackenzie goal. That wound up in the back of the net to make it 3-2, but it was all Niskanen on the third Penguins goal, as he wristed the puck from the left circle past Bobrovsky to tie the score, 3-3.
Niskanen has been quite the emerging spectacle for the Penguins in his seventh NHL season. His 10 goals, 36 assists and 46 regular-season points were all career highs, much of it because he crossed a kind of mental threshold in his approach in the offensive zone.
"A couple of years ago when I first got a chance to play with those guys, you just think, 'Get them the puck,' " he said about his first steps with stars such as Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. "It's good play, but defenses are shaded that way a lot, too."
So Niskanen figured there was no harm in blasting away now and again, and he has been successful enough that the Blue Jackets should probably account for his proclivities.
Niskanen reacted to that suggestion as if it had never occurred to him.
"It's a possibility," he allowed. "Teams adjust."
No doubt Game 2 will make that obvious tonight, in its way. If nothing else, the Penguins will have a contrite, penitent Letang on the second power-play unit.
"We talked about it," Letang said. "You just have to keep your emotions in check."
It wasn't the only adjustment required, but it was very likely the right place to start.
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