Penguins' Letestu does good job filling in for Crosby

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Tell Mark Letestu that he has only a few hours to make his way across the commonwealth and play in just his third NHL game, and he is fine with it.

Inform him that he is going step into a spot on the second line of one of the league's finest teams, and he is not fazed in the least.

But don't even think about suggesting to Letestu, who was summoned from the Penguins' minor league team hours before their 2-1 overtime loss to Chicago at Mellon Arena Saturday night, that he is taking over for the guy whose groin problem led to him being recalled.

"I think just replacing him on the roster," Letestu said. "By no means am I replacing his production."

He wasn't simply being modest, because Letestu joined the Penguins after Sidney Crosby decided at the game-day skate that his sore groin simply wouldn't allow him to play against the Blackhawks.


Today

Game: Carolina Hurricanes at Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).

Goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Manny Legace for Hurricanes.

Penguins: Are 5-0 against Southeast Division opponents. ... Winger Ruslan Fedotenko doesn't have goal in 11 games. ... Own 15-4 record when outshooting opponents.

Hurricanes: Have won four of past eight regular-season games at Mellon Arena. ... C Matt Cullen has five-game points streak. ... Are 3-12 in games decided by two or more goals.

Hidden stat: Hurricanes haven't won more than two games in row all season, and have done that just twice.


Now, Letestu is a fair player with genuine offensive talent -- he has four goals and nine assists in 14 games with the Penguins' farm team in Wilkes-Barre -- but he is aware that Crosby has 11 points in his past three games. Suffice it to say, not many guys can put up those kinds of numbers.

"When a guy like that goes down, everybody in the room's got to pick it up a little bit," Letestu said. "He's been great for the team lately."

It merits mention that Letestu gave the Penguins a fair night's work against Chicago. He logged 13 minutes, 52 seconds of ice time, most of that in Evgeni Malkin's usual spot between Ruslan Fedotenko and Pascal Dupuis, and won a faceoff that made the Penguins' only goal possible.

In fact, Letestu was the only Penguin to at least break even on draws, going 9-7.

"He had a good game," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "He had a couple of [scoring] chances in the slot and made a few plays. ... He did a number of good things in a game where we needed him to step up."

Especially for a guy who, as midday arrived, had every reason to believe he would spend the evening going head-to-head with the Hartford Wolf Pack, not a serious Stanley Cup contender.

"I just kind of finished up my meal getting ready for Hartford and [Wilkes-Barre coach Todd] Reirden called me and let me know I was playing the Blackhawks," Letestu said. "I got the call at 12:15, had to be in the car by 12:30 and I was here at 5:30, ready to play."

How long he'll stay isn't clear. The Penguins are likely to be cautious with Crosby, especially given his history of groin issues, but they also don't figure to keep many spare bodies around for long, if only for salary-cap reasons.

Of course, every shift Letestu gets here is an opportunity to prove to management that he deserves to stay on the major-league roster, that he can make a contribution that justifies having him here permanently.

That's a long shot, but Letestu might have made more good plays Saturday than Chris Bourque did in 20 games, and the Penguins gave the latter two months to try to prove that he is ready for steady work in the NHL.

"[Letestu] played a good game," Dupuis said. "The first time he came up, he played well, too.."

Letestu made several eye-catching plays against the Blackhawks. There was a backhanded, cross-ice feed that created a quality scoring opportunity for Sergei Gonchar in the second period, and a shot from the slot about six minutes into the third that caromed off the left goalpost.

But it was one of Letestu's faceoff victories that had the greatest impact on the game.

At 18:21 of the third period, with Chicago protecting a 1-0 lead, Letestu controlled a draw against John Madden of Chicago. Seven seconds later, Jordan Staal threw in the shot that salvaged a point for the Penguins.

At the time, that seemed like a huge sequence. If the Penguins clinch something -- be it a playoff berth, division title or home-ice advantage for every round of the playoffs -- by one point, it will look even bigger.

If nothing else, it reinforced the idea that the Penguins will have his number on speed-dial in case they need to plug a hole at center again this season.

"Anytime you get called up, it's a good feeling," Letestu said. "It means somebody in this organization trusts me to play at this level, and thinks I can.

"Especially being up here a time before, it means they thought I performed well enough to get another shot. I'm grateful for the opportunity, and, hopefully, it keeps going."


Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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