Kris Letang, Mikhail Grabovski

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.

Canucks spoil Ducks’ home opener via shootout

Adam Cracknell, Ryan Miller
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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) Ryan Miller and the Vancouver Canucks have already found a groove just three games into the regular season. The Anaheim Ducks are still looking for a way to get their offense going.

Radim Vrbata and Alex Burrows scored in the shootout, and the Canucks spoiled Anaheim’s home opener with a 2-1 victory Monday night.

Miller made 28 saves and Adam Cracknell scored in regulation for Vancouver, which beat the Ducks for just the third time in their last 12 meetings.

Vancouver improved to 2-0 on the road in the young season, with Miller yielding just one goal in each game. That’s encouraging to the veteran, who played in only four games after Feb. 22 last season while dealing with a knee injury.

“I’m just trying to go out there and battle and compete,” said Miller, who stopped a third-period redirection by Carl Hagelin with his mask. “That was my mindset coming off an injury. That’s what it really comes down to, getting back the focus early on. I didn’t play hockey for a while. The technical stuff I worked on this summer and I pay attention to in practice.”

Even with twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin combining for just one shot, the Canucks won the new season’s first meeting between the Pacific Division’s top two teams last year. Anaheim won its third straight division title, while Vancouver finished a surprising second before losing in the opening round of the playoffs.

Sami Vatanen scored and Frederik Andersen stopped 24 shots for the Ducks, who have scored just one goal while going winless in the first two games of a season that begins with Stanley Cup aspirations.

Anaheim was shut out in San Jose on Saturday in its opener before returning to Honda Center for its first real game on home ice since Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, when Chicago advanced to win the Stanley Cup.

Kevin Bieksa played nearly 24 1/2 minutes in his second game with the Ducks. Anaheim acquired the veteran defenseman from Vancouver last summer after he played 10 years with the Canucks, who drafted him in 2001. Bieksa was reunited with Ryan Kesler, the longtime Vancouver forward who moved to Anaheim before last season.

“We fought back a lot better than we did in San Jose,” Bieksa said. “So we need to keep building on this in the rest of this homestand here. If we do that, we’re going to be all right.”

After the Ducks failed to score on a power play during their first official taste of 3-on-3 overtime hockey, Vrbata and Burrows got stuttering, halting shots past Andersen, who stopped Burrows’ shot before watching it trickle under him.

“I’ve done that move a few times against a few goalies, but I don’t think I’ve ever done it against Freddie,” Burrows said. “So I tried it, and I’m lucky it went in tonight. It hit his stick and trickled in.”

Jakob Silfverberg scored in the shootout for the Ducks, who lost their home opener for just the second time in six seasons. Anaheim’s talented offensive players aren’t clicking so far, but nobody is panicking yet.

“I think we’re doing things the right way now,” Vatanen said. “We battled hard. We got some good chances. The season is long, so we’re going the right way.”

Both teams opened at a furious pace, with end-to-end chances throughout. After a scoreless first period, Vatanen got the Ducks’ first goal of the season when his long, low shot went through Mike Santorelli‘s screen.

Cracknell evened it later in the period with a sharp-angled shot that somehow deflected off Andersen’s shoulder or stick and landed behind the goalie. The journeyman got his first regular-season NHL goal since April 4, 2013, and just the seventh of his 85-game NHL career.

“Pretty fortunate goal on their part,” Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said.

NOTES: A small group of vocal protesters gathered outside Honda Center to call for the suspension of Ducks D Clayton Stoner, who faces charges in Canada related to a 2013 grizzly bear hunt. … Cracknell hadn’t scored a goal in his last 49 regular-season games, although he got a postseason goal in 2014 for St. Louis.

Coming Tuesday: Dan Boyle, $4.5M healthy scratch

Brad Marchand, Dan Boyle

Few things say “Oops, bad signing” quite like putting a really expensive player in street clothes (without an injury being involved).

The Philadelphia Flyers set quite the high bar in that regard, but the New York Rangers can’t laugh too much. Not with Dan Boyle expected to be a healthy scratch against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday.

The word from the Bergen Record is that Dylan McIlrath will draw into the Rangers lineup in Boyle’s space, although Kevin Klein will take over Boyle’s role on the power play.

Let’s face the facts. At 39, Boyle may still boast some zip on offense, but maybe not enough to justify an everyday role.

It’s not the first time the Rangers have decided to make the difficult, awkward season to phase a big name out as he approaches age 40.

Even if it’s just a momentary situation, one cannot help but wonder if Boyle’s career is screeching to halt much like Martin St. Louis’ did in 2014-15 (though the latter’s decline was more sudden).

On the bright side, it sounds like Boyle has a side job lined up with Faith No More.