If you don’t believe that Kris Letang is one of the most important pieces of the Penguins puzzle then you have never seen Kris Letang play hockey.
After missing 21 games due to a concussion and broken nose, Letang returned to the line-up against the first in the league Rangers in Madison Square Garden last night for what could be described as the Pens most critical game of the season. It was a true moment of definition for the Pens regarding their discipline, unity and confidence. The Pens are 6-6-0 against teams in their own division this season, the majority of the wins coming against the Islanders, who are only 2 points out of last place in the conference.
The Pens extended their win streak to 4, defeating the Rangers 4-1 (in an odd night with 6 teams games ending with a score of 4-1). After losing 6 in a row and not looking like the first place team they began the season as, the Penguins have gained some ground and returned to playing their game, rather than playing into the hands of their opponents. After much controversey around the necessity for a captain, it appears that the team has heeded the call of Alternate Captain Brooks Orpik to simply play with personal responsibility for your actions on the ice.
The guys look confidence again, with the Neal-Malkin-Kunitz line currently being arguably the most unbeatable line in the NHL. Evgeni Malkin is leading the NHL in points, with 54, scoring 9 of those points in the last 4 games and tying linemate James Neal for fourth in the league in goals, with 24 a piece. Malkin also has risen to second in the league in game winning goals with 6.
Neal and Malkin share a symbiotic relationship on the ice. They make one another better and feed each other success. The acquisition of Neal has made most fans realize how important Malkin is to the team, after losing him to injury for almost half of last season. This is the winger Geno has been waiting for to help him play at the elite level we as he hoisted the Conn Smyth Trophy in 2009. Geno is back.
Letang is another force that many could no appreciate until he was gone. I was under the assumption that Letang would be eased back into the game, possibly playing around 10-12 minutes, but apparently even I don’t fully appreciate the caliber of Letang. He played a dominating 24:17 last night, just 19 seconds less than his last game in Montreal when he scored the game winning goal in over time (with a broken nose and concussion at that).
He is one of the Pens most versitile players, a true example of a defenseman with extreme offensive ability. He blocked 2 shots last night, each one at a completely critical moment, sacrificing his body in front of the net. He was awarded an assist on Malkin’s backhanded beauty in the second period and had 3 hits. Letang was everywhere he needed to be when he needed to be there. Like Matt Cooke in the playoffs last season, the Pens missed Letang on the penalty kill. You don’t realize how badly the team needs that one part sometimes until it isn’t there.
Marc-Andre Fleury played what I believe was one of his best games this season, allowing just one extremely soft goal by Carl Hagelin. Deryk Engelland continues to impress, especially with his assist on Richard Park’s goal. He was largely responsible for bringing the puck in to make that goal possible.
The Pens play again tonight against Montreal at Consol Energy Center. 5 is better than 4.
Let’s Go Pens!