By Matt Popchock
I am not loathe to admit when the team lining up on the other side of the faceoff circle is simply better. That was the case Monday night when the Boston Bruins stormed into CONSOL Energy Center and stormed out with an "unbeaten" streak that stood at 15 games.
Granted, the Penguins didn't do themselves many favors that night, and neither did the hockey gods. I'm still trying to figure out which deity they ticked off to deserve such a biblical rash of injuries in the span of just one calendar year.
Sidney Crosby doesn't have to take off his skates to count the number of games he and fellow stars Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal have been healthy enough to play together during that time. That just doesn't feel right.
But lost amidst the distraction of Crosby's two-game absence and the mild paranoia that has followed is the fact that the Pens will be without Kris Letang, whom I believe is just as integral to that team as Sid, for the immediate future as well.
Without No. 87 then Pens have their work cut out for them in Philadelphia Thursday and on Long Island Saturday. The Pens have done a solid job to this point considering they know they're getting the best from every opponent every night, but being without Letang hurts a defensive corps that may be even more under siege than usual sans the team's top forward.
Some of the Penguins' problems against the Bruins stemmed from puck movement. That starts with the defensemen, and Letang can do that as confidently as any blue-liner in the league.
Another significant problem was special teams play. Tyler Seguin's shorthanded goal early in the third confirmed the writing on the wall, but the Pens had two golden opportunities in the second period in the form of 5-on-3 power plays.
Props to Tim Thomas for another world-class effort in goal, especially during those game-changing moments. But to not score at least once under those circumstances with Crosby and Malkin at your disposal, especially with human skyscraper Zdeno Chara in the box for one of those penalties, is hard to forgive.
Since that early-season spike, the Penguins' power play has fallen like Wednesday's snow in Faeytte County to a modest 16th overall at 17.5%. Don't expect those numbers to improve without Letang.
Once again, puck movement is an issue, as is zone entry. Not only can Letang shoot from the point, but he is largely responsible for setting up shots and maintaining camp in the offensive zone.
His absence deprives the power play of chemistry. Without a player at that position whom opponents respect, they're just going to employ tighter coverage and take away space from whomever the Penguins put up high.
A dearth of special teams productivity did in the Pens in last season's Eastern Conference Quarterfinal, but when the Tampa Bay Lightning squeezed out wins of 4-2 and 1-0 in Games 6 and 7, respectively, they were reminded that one can never have too much skill on the back end in the NHL.
The completeness of Letang's game is noticeable. Through 22 games this season he has registered a plus-5. He ended the previous regular season with a plus-15 rating, so he's on pace to eclipse that and then some. He's not just a next-generation Paul Coffey. His great offensive capability does not leave him vulnerable at his own position.
Subtracting an All-Star from the Penguins' defensive corps leaves them more vulnerable, especially against teams like the Flyers. Despite the fact they have problems of their own on the back end without Chris Pronger, GM Paul Holmgren's gutsy off-season moves seem to be paying off early in 2011-12.
Prodigal son Jaromir Jagr has found ways to contribute, and youngster Jakub Voracek has meshed well with talented goal-scorer Danny Briere and rookie Matt Read. More importantly, however, Penguin-killer Claude Giroux is on a tear, and has climbed to the top of the league's scoring charts.
The Flyers can do just that--"fly" in your face offensively--and it's nights like this where Letang will be missed.
I sincerely hope Letang's belated symptoms don't mirror anything remotely resembling what Crosby endured. Our own Joe Starkey made a fair point in the Tribune-Review that the Penguins should have been extra-careful with him after getting his face rearranged by Montreal's Max Pacioretty, though it serves Pacioretty and his teammates right that Letang stayed long enough to defeat them himself.
Besides, I can't blame him for finishing the game after getting clearance from Montreal's team physician...though, if memory serves, Toronto's team physician cleared a player who almost got decapitated during a game last season (so much for socialized medicine, eh?).
At any rate, it would be a blow if that were the last we see of him before the new calendar year. The Penguins have proven they can manufacture offense without Crosby, but manufacturing defense and special teams without Letang is also a daunting task.
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