No way to sugarcoat loss of Letang

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Even though Kris Letang isn’t the best player on the Pittsburgh Penguins, there is a strong argument to be made he is probably their most important player, the most difficult to replace, and the one they can not afford to lose if they are going to win another Stanley Cup.

That is why the Penguins’ announcement on Wednesday that Letang will be sidelined for 4-6 months due to a herniated disc in his neck is such a significant blow to their Stanley Cup chances, even if they get all of their other injured players back in the lineup in time for the start of the postseason. None of them are Kris Letang.

In all honesty, they would probably have a better chance to win it all if they had a healthy Letang, but were without one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, than they do with both Crosby and Malkin, but no Letang.

The thought process behind this is simple. Without one of Crosby or Malkin they still have another No. 1 center. They still have a forward that can drive the offense. But when you take Letang out of the lineup, there is nobody else that can play the 28 minutes per night that he does in the playoffs. There is nobody else that can dictate the pace of the game in every key situation the way Letang does. There is nobody else that can serve as a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone and skate the puck out of danger. Or join the rush as smoothly as he does. Or chase down just about any forward in the NHL.

Crosby might be the Penguins’ heart and soul, but Letang is the engine the makes the whole system run.

“He’s an elite player and a great teammate,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan on Wednesday. “He’s a tough guy to replace.”

Every Stanley Cup team needs that type of workhorse defenseman, and every one that wins has it. The Penguins have Letang. The Chicago Blackhawks have Duncan Keith. The Los Angeles Kings have Drew Doughty. The Boston Bruins had Zdeno Chara.

So how are the Penguins going to make this work?

The biggest key will be the play of Justin Schultz, because he is probably the one defender on the blue line that can at least somewhat replace some of what Letang does, at least when it comes to sparking the offense.

After starting to regain some of his confidence late last season and in the playoffs following the trade from Edmonton, Schultz’s career has taken a massive step forward in 2016-17.

With 49 points in 76 games he is starting to resemble the player the Edmonton Oilers thought he would be so many years ago.

But he has mostly been doing that in a complementary, support role. Now he has to be not only one of the go-to guys on defense, but perhaps the go-to guy.

Since Letang went out of the lineup on Feb. 28 no defenseman on the team has logged more minutes per game than Schultz’s 23:42, and while his play has remained strong, his production has fallen off a little from where it was before then. Prior to March he was averaging 0.66 points per game and was a 52 percent corsi player in 19 minutes per game. Since March 1 he is at 0.55 points per game and is a 49 percent corsi player. And again, there is also the fact that for as good as he has been, he still isn’t Kris Letang.

If the Penguins have one thing going for them it is the fact they were at least somewhat prepared for something like this and have some depth thanks to the trade deadline additions of Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit.

Think back two years ago to when Letang was also sidelined for the playoffs and the Penguins went into their first-round series against the New York Rangers having to rely on the likes of Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy to play 22 minutes per night, while also using Taylor Chorney on their bottom pairing. That was a bad situation.

Things are not quite that dire this time around. With Hainsey, Streit, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin, and the possible returns of Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, they at least have enough bodies to piece together a very formidable NHL defense that can help them compete.

To their credit, they have been able to withstand Letang’s absence (on top of several other key players) for the better part of the past two months. They have the quantity on the blue line to maybe get through it.

They just don’t have the elite, No. 1 guy.

Where that becomes a problem is the playoffs are an entirely different animal than the regular season.

While the Penguins have been able to get by in recent weeks, it may not be as easy when they have to play a playoff caliber team every night for potentially seven games. That team might be able to better exploit that weakness. They will not get the occasional game against a last place team or non-playoff team that they can sneak past.

And for the Penguins, coming out of the Metropolitan Division bracket their postseason path is going to have to take them through Columbus and most likely Washington in the first two rounds if they are going to come out of the Eastern Conference again. That is two of the four best teams in the NHL right now.

Even with Letang that would have been a tall mountain to climb.

It is simply that much steeper without him.

After surgery, Joe Thornton should be ready for 2017-18 (Wherever he plays)

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On Monday, we found out that Joe Thornton made the “courageous” (or … outrageous?) decision to fight through tears to his ACL and MCL and suit up for the playoffs.

(That still warrants a moment of reflection, because, wow.)

The San Jose Sharks sent out a positive update in that regard: after successful surgery yesterday, Thornton is expected to be ready to play by the start of the 2017-18 season.

So, that answers one big question. It doesn’t settle an even bigger one, though: where will Thornton play next year?

Patrick Marleau indicated that he believes he has “at least five good years” left, a fine thought that becomes trickier when you consider San Jose’s salary structure problems for 2018-19 and on. The impression is that Thornton wants to come back, too, but what if he – justifiably – seeks security in a longer term deal?

That situation is currently unclear, but at least it sounds like he’ll be healthy to start next season, whether he remains a member of the Sharks or joins a different roster.

Ovechkin on facing Crosby, Penguins: ‘You don’t have to be afraid’

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Sidney Crosby is standing in Alex Ovechkin‘s way again. Of course.

Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins extinguished two of the Washington Capitals’ best Stanley Cup hopes in 2009 and 2016, going on to win the championship each time. Now as Ovechkin and the Capitals face a summer of change, it’s only fitting that perhaps their best chance to win it all means going through defending champion Pittsburgh in the second round.

Ovechkin knows the playoff history, the blowout loss at home in Game 7 in 2009 and the overtime loss on the road in Game 6 that ended last season. He brought them up unprompted Tuesday as if to try to bury them in the past.

“We play them twice in the playoffs and we don’t have success,” Ovechkin said. “We lost in Game 6 and Game 7. You just have to move forward. You don’t have to be afraid. You know you play against Stanley Cup champion and they are very good team, but so we are. This battle have to be done if we want to get success.”

In franchise history, the Capitals have only beaten the Penguins once in nine playoff meetings. That matters more to the respective fan bases than players, only a few of whom are still around from 2009.

This season brings a matchup of the top two teams in the regular season, put on a crash course to face off before the conference final by the NHL’s division playoff format. Crosby said, “You kind of expected we’d see each other at some point,” and the Capitals figure no better time than the present to tackle their biggest obstacle.

“You usually have to go through the best team to get to where you want to go,” said center Jay Beagle, who is going into his third Capitals-Penguins series. “It was either now or maybe in the third round. Let’s do it now.”

What better time for a renewal of Crosby versus Ovechkin, which to this point has been a lopsided rivalry? Crosby owns a 38-21 record in their meetings in the NHL regular season and playoffs, world junior championships, world championships, World Cup and Olympics.

Ovechkin, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, and Crosby, the No. 1 pick in 2005, have been stars for more than a decade and have been compared to each other for longer than that. They spent some time together at the gathering of the NHL’s top 100 players during All-Star Weekend and their friendship has evolved over time.

“We respect each other,” Ovechkin said. “That battle between me and him, it’s great. I think me and him enjoy it, you guys enjoy it, fans enjoy it. But right now it’s not about me and him, it’s about Caps and Penguins.”

Crosby and Ovechkin are quick to deflect the spotlight to star teammates – Pittsburgh has Evgeni Malkin and Washington has Nicklas Backstrom – and shift the focus to team play. Over his three years as Capitals coach, Barry Trotz has seen Ovechkin grow up and his priorities change.

Trotz has seen Ovechkin celebrate teammates’ goals harder than his own and languish in losses all while putting up goals at a faster clip than anyone in this generation.

The only thing that has evaded the three-time Hart Trophy winner and six-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner is the Cup. Trotz said Ovechkin understands what he means to the team, the league and what’s left undone “before the sun sets on his career.”

Ovechkin is 31 and still has four years left on his contract. But with winger T.J. Oshie, defenseman Karl Alzner and others set to be unrestricted free agents – and the salary cap crunching the Capitals, too – there’s an urgency about winning this year.

That means trying to finally get over the second-round hump.

“It’s a big opportunity for us to beat the Stanley Cup champion and play the next team in the third round,” Ovechkin said. “Obviously we’ve never done it before. It’s a big opportunity for us to move forward and get success.”

NOTES: Capitals RW Tom Wilson left practice when he took a puck off the left ankle. Trotz called it a stinger and said he was fine. … Ovechkin missed the second half of practice after breaking a skate. … C Lars Eller didn’t skate, with the team calling it a maintenance day.

AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed.

More AP NHL: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

Karlsson explains how Senators plan on getting to Lundqvist

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) After struggling through a subpar season by his standards, Henrik Lundqvist was at his best when the Rangers needed him in the first round.

The 35-year-old goalie will again have to be at the top of his game against Ottawa for New York to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in six years.

“Hank has been through this before,” coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday after the Rangers began preparing to face the Senators in the conference semifinals.

“I think he’s really thriving on the pressure and the opportunity. … He wants to be a difference-maker and he’s looking forward to this series.”

This season, Lundqvist had to deal with periods of inconsistency – highlighted by winning a season-high five straight starts Feb. 2-11 and then losing three of five from Feb. 26 to March 7 before a hip injury cost him nearly three weeks.

He then won just once in six starts (1-3-2) after returning in late March and finished the season 31-20-4 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage – career worsts for the latter two.

However, since the playoffs started he has been sharp, getting his 10th career postseason shutout in the opener against Montreal and then finishing with a career-high 54 saves – regular season or playoffs – in an overtime loss in Game 2.

Lundqvist finished the first round with a 1.70 GAA and .947 save percentage – both the best among all goalies. He gave up just four goals on 88 shots while the Rangers won the last three games of the series after allowing seven goals on 87 shots in losses in Games 2 and 3.

“The guys played so hard with a lot of structure in front and made it so much easier for me to focus on my game and try to do my part,” said Lundqvist, who has 2.25 GAA and .923 save percentage in 122 postseason games.

“It was a great feeling to see the way we worked, especially the way we battled back the last couple games.”

He had a big save in the clinching Game 6 win against Montreal with the Rangers leading by one and less than two minutes remaining, making a lunging pad stop on Tomas Plekanec‘s backhand follow attempt in close.

“I knew I was in trouble because I wasn’t in good position on the first play and then he threw it at me,” Lundqvist said. “My first thought was `don’t knock it in,’ and then it ends up right on his stick. It was just a desperation save. Luckily he didn’t put it far corner.”

Now, he’ll be going up against an Ottawa team lead by former teammate Derick Brassard (two goals, six assists in first-round win against Boston), Bobby Ryan (four goals, three assists) and fellow Swede Erik Karlsson (six assists).

“They have some key players in their core group that play a big part for their team,” Lundqvist said. “When you watch them play, it’s a lot of tight game (and) strike when they get a chance.”

Lundqvist knows how tough his good friend Karlsson is to contain. The defenseman and team captain has topped 50 assists and 70 points in three of the past four seasons.

“You can stop him, you just got to be really good,” Lundqvist said. “You got to have a game plan and follow that. He’s definitely one of the best players in the game, and he plays a big part for them to have success. He’s a good skater, sees the game really well.”

Karlsson, in turn, believes the key to beating Lundqvist is to frustrate him.

“We’re going to have to make it hard on him,” Karlsson told The Canadian Press in Ottawa. “If he sees the puck he’s going to make most of the stops and we’re going to make it hard in front of him by putting a lot of traffic in there and throw a lot of pucks at him. The more shots we have the more opportunities we’re going to have for one to go in.”

Game 1 is Thursday night in Ottawa.

Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

More AP hockey: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Ducks have better chance to slow McDavid with healthier defensemen

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Trying to stop – or at least inhibitConnor McDavid is likely to be a conundrum for opposing teams for, oh, the next decade or two. Still, it helps matters to at least be near 100 percent.

The Anaheim Ducks dispatched the Calgary Flames (a team with some serious firepower on the blueline and also magician-forward Johnny Gaudreau) in four games despite serious limitations on defense. It seems like they’re getting closer to being their full-fledged selves, as the team website revealed that Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler seem likely to play in Game 1. Also, Sami Vatanen is getting better.

Much has already been made about the Ducks matching up Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano against McDavid, at least when they can.

“We’ll start looking at things and try to come up with some sort of plan,” Cogliano told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s dynamic. I think with how good he is sometimes you look [past Draisaitl]. Not that he flies under the radar, but he’s a player you have to keep an eye on, too.”

Still, Randy Carlyle faces some interesting choices as far as which blueliners to send out against McDavid.

Fowler is more known for his offensive skills, but his skating ability makes for an intriguing option, at least if he’s close to 100 percent. Lindholm might not get much press just yet, but he’s quietly building a resume as one of the league’s best defenders. It’s a little tricky with them being even somewhat slowed by injuries, though.

For what it’s worth, the Ducks had some success against McDavid in 2016-17, limiting him to zero goals, one assist and just two shots in three regular-season games.

It’s dangerous to put too much weight on such stats, especially considering the small sample size. The bottom line is that Carlyle gets the final change for Games 1 and 2, a potentially key advantage against McDavid and the Oilers.

You know, assuming there’s even an ideal matchup for Anaheim.