Penguins defenseman Kris Letang scores an empty-net goal in front of the Blue Jackets' Jack Johnson in the first-round playoff series at Consol Energy Center.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Kris Letang is not the player he once was.
He's not the player he can be, either.
Might not be for a few more games, either.
Or a few more weeks. Or until next season.
But Letang, whose career was sidetracked by a stroke in late January, seems to be taking his game in the right direction, having strung together three consecutive solid performances.
And his surge couldn't be more timely for the Penguins, because they trail the New York Rangers, 1-0, in their Eastern Conference second-round playoff series heading into Game 2 at 7:38 p.m. today at Consol Energy Center.
Matchup: Penguins vs. New York Rangers, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
TV, Radio: NBC Sports Network, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins; Henrik Lundqvist for Rangers.
Penguins: Are 30-25 all time in Game 2s, 23-11 at home. ... Are 1-2 when they score first, 3-1 when opponent scores first. ... Chris Kunitz has tied his career high of seven shots twice this postseason, including in Game 1.
Rangers: Are 2-2 on road this postseason. ... Five of their past 12 road playoff games have gone to overtime. ... Benoit Pouliot has playoff career-best three-game points streak (two goals, two assists).
Hidden stat: The Penguins lead the postseason with six one-goal games. They are 3-3.
Their prospects for tying the series -- and, eventually, winning it -- will be significantly enhanced if Letang can play to his potential as a difference-maker on defense.
Letang logged 24 minutes, 26 seconds of ice time in the Penguins' 3-2 overtime loss Friday night in Game 1. That was second among the Penguins only to Paul Martin's 28:33.
Letang blocked a team-high three shots, and was credited with a couple of hits and two shots. A pretty fair showing, even if he didn't play -- or do -- quite as much as he has at times in the past.
"He's able to play in a playoff game 20-plus minutes," said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the defense. "But he's not to the level where he was a couple of years ago, or last year in the playoffs, when we could get him to 27 or 28 minutes."
Teammate Rob Scuderi, Letang's defense partner at times in these playoffs, said "Kris is the type of guy who could stay off for a year and as soon as he steps on, he looks like he's fine," but that's a bit of an overstatement.
Letang returned for the final three games of the regular season and hasn't left the lineup since, but it wasn't until Game 5 of the Penguins' first-round series against Columbus that he actually began to look like himself.
He had been tentative, playing on his heels for most of his first seven games after returning to the lineup, but that changed after a conversation with Reirden in the wake of the Penguins' 4-3 overtime loss in Game 4 against the Blue Jackets.
"That was something we definitely talked about, trying to get him more involved, supporting the rush," Reirden said. "Not leading the rush, but supporting the rush.
"I thought he did a much better job of being in those situations where he can add some of the things that he brings."
For Letang, that means being assertive, ready to move forward rather than sitting back and being willing to err on the side of caution.
"He was more engaged in [Games] 5 and 6," said Martin, Letang's defense partner Friday. "He was up the ice, finding seams and being more aggressive than he was in the first part of the series."
Letang's skating and ability to create offense are his greatest assets. Exploiting his strengths the way he has begun to in the past three games provides positive reinforcement, which fuels further improvement in his play.
"Hockey is more of a confidence thing than anything else," Letang said. "Confidence is a huge part. If you're not confident, those things won't happen and it won't [come] together."
Letang has only one point, an empty-net goal in Game 5 against the Blue Jackets, in seven playoff appearances in 2014, so he clearly isn't showing up on the scoresheet nearly as often as he has in the past.
And while his game appears to be meshing and the points presumably will come as he gets even more comfortable reclaiming the role he has filled for most of the past few seasons, Letang declines to predict when he will return to 100 percent.
"I don't know," he said. "I can't really tell you how long it's going to take."
Conditioning is a critical component of Letang's game; and much of it was lost in the weeks that followed his stroke being diagnosed, when his physical activity was limited.
There's every reason to believe that his conditioning level, like the finely honed edge on his offensive skills, will return eventually. But, as with his game, there's no way of knowing precisely when that will happen.
"We're still working toward getting him into mid-season form," Reirden said. "We're in the middle of a process of getting him back, [getting Letang] in his top playing condition.
"It's encouraging that his best games are still ahead of him."
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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