Cook: Letang slumping instead of rising to playoff occasion
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The Penguins didn't do a new contract with Sergei Gonchar after last season because it wasn't fiscally prudent to guarantee him a third year at his age, 37 at the time. They also had Kris Letang to run their power play.
The Penguins traded promising offensive defenseman Alex Goligoski to Dallas for power forward James Neal in February to help them not just this season, but for many seasons to come. They still had Kris Letang to quarterback their power play.
That's a lot of faith in Kris Letang. He hasn't lived up to it.
That isn't to say the Gonchar decision and the Goligoski trade weren't good moves by Penguins general manager Ray Shero. They were. That doesn't mean Letang, who turned 24 Sunday, won't be a terrific defenseman for the next decade. He has a real chance to be just that. It doesn't even mean Letang won't be the hero tonight when the Penguins play the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series at Consol Energy Center. He's due.
It just means Letang hasn't been what the Penguins expected he would be since two things happened at virtually the same time: People started talking about him as a Norris Trophy candidate and teammate Sidney Crosby went out of the lineup with concussion-related symptoms.
Letang hasn't been the same consistent player.
The Penguins' power(less) play is 1 for 30 against the Lightning. Letang hasn't scored a goal of any kind in the series, although he did hit a post in the 4-2 loss in Game 6 Monday night. He hasn't scored a goal in 31 games dating to Feb. 11.
No one has missed Crosby more than Letang. Clearly, the two make magic together. Letang was on his way to that Norris Trophy with six goals and 30 assists in the first 41 games with Crosby on the ice. He had just two goals and 12 assists in the 41 that followed after Crosby went down after the Jan. 5 game.
"Everybody misses him, not just me," Letang said Tuesday. "Our team. Our coaches. Our organization. He's the best player in the world. What do you expect? Everybody needs him."
No argument here.
But the Penguins miss Letang's production. He was a force in the playoffs last year with five goals in 13 games. He made Shero look smart for giving him a four-year, $14 million extension a few weeks earlier. But that was with Crosby and, for that matter, Evgeni Malkin, who has been out since Feb. 4 with a knee injury.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged Letang's game has been impacted by their absence. "He feels more offense falls to him and doing some things maybe more himself."
Not so, according to Letang.
"Not at all," he said when asked if he is pressing. "I keep doing my thing and playing my way."
That might be the problem. Letang's way isn't good enough now. One for 30, remember?
That's not nearly good enough for a team that's offensively challenged 5-on-5 without Crosby and Malkin.
By Tuesday, the power play had become a tiresome topic in the Penguins' room. The problems started long before the playoffs. It was 6 for 76 in the final 23 regular-season games.
At least rookie center Mark Letestu took the issue head on.
"For us, it's the mentality of, 'It's the next one,' " he said. "If you look back at the numbers, it can be discouraging. It's a single-digit percentage. But we're looking to the next one. If we score one [in Game 7], the power play will look great."
It would be nice if Letang gets it. That might get him going. It might get the offense going. Not that Letang can do it by himself.
"It's a unit of five," he said. "It's a question of everybody getting shots. You don't put pressure on [Alex] Kovalev. You don't put pressure on anyone."
It's interesting that Letang mentioned Kovalev. He has done nothing in the series after scoring the first goal in Game 1. He doesn't even look as if he's interested in shooting on the power play. It might not be wrong for Bylsma to sit him tonight for rookie Eric Tangradi.
Neal hasn't been much better. He hasn't had a power-play goal since joining the Penguins, although he did get a significant even-strength goal to beat the Lightning in double overtime in Game 4. Jordan Staal has had just one power-play goal since Feb. 11. Maybe his first goal in the series against the Lightning in Game 6 will lead to something bigger tonight.
"It's not so much of Kris Letang having to do more [in Game 7] or one person on the power play needing to come up with a big game," Bylsma said. "It's going to be our team and how we play. It's putting ourselves in position to win the hockey game because of the way we play.
"As a team, for Game 7, if we can do that, someone will put on the cape. It could be Kris Letang ... But it's more important how we play vs. one guy going out and thinking he has to put the cape on to help us win the game."
That's Bylsma's way of saying he hopes Letang doesn't press. I'm guessing he'd love to see him score a goal, though. Wouldn't we all?
First Published April 27, 2011 12:00 am