Game of the Week preview: Should the Penguins be worried about Kris Letang’s struggles?

Thanks to some great work by head coach Dan Bylsma – and a roster full of hustling, hardworking players – the Pittsburgh Penguins remain competitive without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Yet if there’s one player who hit a wall without those two superstars, it is defenseman Kris Letang.

Whether you blame his struggles on the absence of those two forwards or the wear and tear that comes from playing big minutes in the post-Sergei Gonchar days, there’s little doubt that Letang is running out of steam. He began the season on a torrid pace, scoring 41 points in 50 games, but now he only has five points in his last 21. Things have been especially troubling lately, though, as he only has one assist and zero goals in his last 12 games.

His struggles aren’t limited to the offensive end, either. After producing positive plus minus ratings in every month through the All-Star Game, Letang sported an ugly -9 in February and holds a -1 with zero points in seven March games.

It would be hasty to wonder if Letang’s hot start was just a mirage, especially considering the drop in quality supporting cast members around him. Along with losing Crosby and Malkin – which surely hurts his power play numbers – Letang also has been without the safety net provided by defenseman Brooks Orpik and the one-two offensive punch provided by fellow scoring blueliner Alex Goligoski. Orpik has been injured while Goligoski is no longer on the team’s roster thanks to the James Neal trade.

A Penguins fan asked Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat reporter Dave Molinari about Letang’s issues, leading to this response.

While it’s painfully obvious that Letang’s play has slipped – he has one point, an assist, in his past 12 games and recently went 10 in a row without recording a positive plus-minus rating – his exceptional play during the early months of the season makes his slump seem even worse than it is. Whether it was realistic to expect a 23-year-old playing the toughest position in the game to remain at the rarefied level he so often reached during the first half of the season is open to debate, but his play into January certainly raised the bar of expectations.

Whether Letang really believed that it was his responsibility to fill the offensive void created by the loss of Crosby and Malkin isn’t known, but the reality is that there aren’t many defensemen shy of Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey in their primes who could even think of putting up enough points to do that. And if Letang did feel that way, he surely should have realized long ago that it wasn’t working the way he hoped.

That Letang has lost his swagger, as you put it, shouldn’t surprise anyone, because even the most accomplished player’s confidence suffers when he slips into a significant slump. It’s tough to be assertive when you’re doubting your abilities. The good news in that regard is, once Letang gets his game back in sync – and that will happen at some point, although there’s no guarantee it will be this season – his swagger will come back, too.

Overall, the Penguins shouldn’t be worried about Letang in the long term, but it’s tough to avoid speculation that he might struggle during the remainder of this season and the playoffs. Of course, that could all change if a well-rested Crosby finds his way back into the lineup.

Ducks cement Pacific lead as Getzlaf continues his mammoth March

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By the end of Sunday night, the Anaheim Ducks removed all doubt: they’re on top of the Pacific Division.

Now, it’s not the sort of substantial lead that the sliding San Jose Sharks squandered; Anaheim merely leads the Sharks and Edmonton Oilers by two standings points after beating the New York Rangers 6-3.

With everyone at 75 games played, it’s kind of nice to enjoy the clarity that comes with a clear lead (though the Sharks and Oilers will disagree):

Pacific top four (all teams with 75 games played)

1. Ducks – 93 points (38 ROW, 41 W)
2. Sharks – 91 poitns (40 ROW, 42 W)
3. Oilers – 91 points (37 ROW, 41 W)

Flames – 88 points (38 ROW, 42 W)

The Ducks are now on a four-game winning streak and managed an 8-1-1 mark in their last 10 contests.

With all due respect to Patrick Eaves‘ two goals, it’s Ryan Getzlaf who’s really playing outstanding hockey. He generated four assists in this one, giving him eight helpers in his past four games. He now has a whopping 20 points in March.

A lot going on – fight included – between Corey Perry, Brendan Smith (Video)

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If there’s one thing that’s undeniable from the clip going on, it’s that Corey Perry and Brendan Smith squeezed a lot of activity (carnage?) into a single shift.

Early on in Sunday’s New York Rangers – Anaheim Ducks game, both player delivered hits that were at least borderline dangerous. After that, they traded punches in a pretty solid fight (especially since they seemed a little tired because, again, this was a fairly elaborate sequence).

It’s way too messy a sequence to call neat, but there is something efficient about trading hits and then getting into a fight. That’s a mini-hockey feud in short order.

If you want a pretty moment to counteract all that, check out the great puck movement on this 3-on-1 goal for the Rangers:

Penguins lose to Flyers and lose another key player to injury

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PITTSBURGH — Even with a ridiculously long injured list that would be the foundation of a pretty good hockey team, the Pittsburgh Penguins still found a way to go 8-1-3 in their previous 12 games entering Sunday’s contest against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The injuries finally seemed to start catching up to them on Sunday in a 6-2 loss, extending their current losing streak to three games, matching their season long.

While the loss certainly impacts their pursuit of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division (they remain three points back of the Washington Capitals), and even their quest for home ice advantage in the first round, it is still not the worst thing to come out of Sunday’s game.

The worst thing for them would be the fact the Penguins lost yet another key player to an injury when forward Conor Sheary had to leave the game mid-way through the first period.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after the game that Sheary is dealing with a lower body injury and that right now he is considered to be day-to-day. It was initially believed that Sheary was injured blocking a shot, but Sullivan insisted that was not the case and that it happened in the offensive zone at some point in the first period.

With Jake Guentzel still sidelined due a concussion he suffered in a recent game against the Buffalo Sabres, that means two-thirds of the team’s recently assembled top line (Sidney Crosby-Sheary-Guentzel) is now sidelined due to injury. Sheary’s injury is especially concerning given how good he has been on Crosby’s wing dating back to the 2016 playoffs. Entering play on Sunday Sheary was averaging nearly a point per game (50 points in 54 games) with almost all of that production coming at even-strength.

They had yet another scare in the third period on Sunday when defenseman Brian Dumoulin had to briefly leave the game and head to the locker room after he was elbowed in the side of the head by Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds.

On Sunday, all of the injuries finally seemed to be too much with the Flyers pretty much dominating the game over the final two periods.

The Flyers received goals from six different players (Jordan Weal, Valtteri Filppula, Dale Weise, Jakob Voracek, Radko Gudas and Shayne Gostisbehere) in the win and outshot the Penguins by a 24-15 margin over the final 40 minutes.

“That wasn’t a good effort and at this point of the season we can’t afford to have those,” said Penguins forward Matt Cullen after the game. “I don’t think that was a typical effort for us. I don’t think we had a lot of life, to be honest.”

Even more than winning games the rest of the way the biggest concern for the Penguins has to be getting their list of injured players healthy and finding a way to avoid adding to it, something that has proven to be difficult in recent weeks.

At this point, whether they win the Metropolitan Division or not, they know their path through the Eastern Conference playoffs is very likely going to have to go through both Washington and Columbus, and they are going to need their full complement of players to do it.

One of the biggest factors in winning a Stanley Cup is having all of your key players in the lineup come playoff time.

A year ago the Penguins did.

Right now they are not even close to having that.

Video: Dumoulin shakes off elbow, Sheary out day-to-day for Penguins

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Barring a major comeback, the Pittsburgh Penguins look like they’re going to lose to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. Their injury losses might be just as big.

On the bright side, it seems like Brian Dumoulin was able to shake off an elbow from Wayne Simmonds. You can watch the hit, which didn’t draw a penalty, in the video above.

Meanwhile, Conor Sheary has been missing since the first period with what might be a lower-body injury.

The Penguins’ list of injuries is already pretty ridiculous, so if one or both of these players miss significant time, tonight will sting deeper than a setback on the scoreboard.

Update after the Penguins’ loss: Seemingly good news, if very early and vague: