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.

Paul Carey replaces Brett Connolly for Capitals in Game 2

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After dropping Game 1 of their second-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night, the Washington Capitals are making a minor lineup change on Saturday for Game 2 of the series when Paul Carey replaces Brett Connolly on the team’s fourth line.

Carey, 28, appeared in only six games for the Capitals this season and did not record a point. He has one goal and one assist in 32 career NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche and Capitals, and appeared in three playoff games for the Avalanche back in 2014.

Given how Connolly’s ice time has been decreasing over the past few games this postseason it probably should not be too much of a surprise that he is now being removed from the lineup. After logging at least 10 minutes of ice time in each of the Capitals’ first three playoff games, he has not played more than 6:12 in each of the past four.

Coach Barry Trotz said on Saturday that he likes Carey’s speed in the lineup against the faster Penguins.

Connolly scored 15 goals in 66 regular season games for the Capitals this season.

In other Capitals lineup news, there is no change in the status of defenseman Karl Alzner as he will remain out of the lineup. He has been sidelined since Game 3 of their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs with an upper-body injury. Nate Schmidt will continue to take his place.

Scott Darling trade ‘worth the risk’ for Hurricanes

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The Carolina Hurricanes made a somewhat surprising move on Friday night when they acquired goaltender Scott Darling from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for a third-round draft pick in 2017.

On the surface it looks like a good move for both the team and the player. Goaltending has been a major thorn in the Hurricanes’ side for several years now, while Darling has probably earned the opportunity to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL after performing extremely well as Corey Crawford‘s backup in Chicago.

The risk for the Hurricanes is that Darling will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and they will have to get him signed to a new contract before then to avoid potentially losing him (and the third-round pick they sent to Chicago) for nothing.

Shortly after the trade on Friday, Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis said all of that was worth the risk because the team has accumulated so many draft picks in this year’s class.

“This is a bit of a gamble but one we believed was worth taking,” Francis told Chip Alexander of the News & Observer. “This is why we accumulated these picks and we still have 10 left. It was worth the risk.”

He added that they would “like to get something done sooner rather than later.”

The duo of Cam Ward and Eddie Lack finished the 2016-17 season with a .901 save percentage, 26th in the NHL. The Hurricanes have finished higher than 25th just once in the past five years. The Hurricanes have solid young core of talent in place and a defense that allowed the fifth fewest shots on goal in the entire league this season. Solidifying the goaltending position would go a long way toward ending the team’s current eight year playoff drought.

 

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs schedule for Saturday, April 29

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The second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoff continues on Saturday with a pair of games on NBC.

All of the action starts at 3 p.m. ET when the New York Rangers try to even their series against the Ottawa Senators. Later, the Pittsburgh Penguins look to take a 2-0 series lead against the Washington Capitals at 8 p.m. ET.

Here is all of the information you need for today’s games.

New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators

Time: 3:00 p.m. ET

Network: NBC (Stream Online Here)

Announcers: John Forslund, Brian Boucher

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

Time: 8:00 p.m. ET

Network: NBC (Stream Online Here)

Announcers: Mike Emrick, Ed Olczyk, Pierre McGuire

Talbot torments Ducks as Oilers take 2-0 series lead

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Those who vehemently argued for Cam Talbot being a Vezina finalist likely felt vindicated tonight (even if postseason results don’t factor into the voting).

In Game 1, Leon Draisaitl stole the show. Talbot was the standout of Game 2, snubbing a steady Ducks threat as Edmonton won 2-1 on Friday.

And, just like that, the Oilers are up 2-0 in their second-round series against the Anaheim Ducks. Better yet for this young group: the venue shifts to what’s likely to be a rowdy scene in Edmonton for Games 3 and 4.

The tone was set when Andrej Sekera scored just 65 seconds into the contest. That said, the Oilers could have sulked when a would-be 2-0 goal was called off (and they had to kill a penalty). Instead, they just kept battling, even after Jakob Silfverberg ended Talbot’s shutout bit with a laser beam on the power play.

Speaking of the power play, the Oilers managed to match the Ducks (1-for-4 each on the PP), even as Talbot faced 12 shots on goal during Anaheim’s power-play opportunities.

Talbot ultimately made 39 of 40 stops, and while the Ducks kept Connor McDavid from scoring, number 97 sure looked speedy and dangerous at times in Game 2.

Anaheim came into the second round with home-ice advantage through the West side of the playoffs, seemingly enjoying a golden opportunity when other conference powers fell. Instead, it’s looking like the Oilers might just have a chance to prove that they’re big-time contenders, too.

Game 3 airs on NBCSN at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday. You can watch online and via the NBC Sports App; click here for the livestream.