Justin Schultz

Letang undergoes successful neck surgery

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Some good news on the Kris Letang front — on Thursday, Pittsburgh announced that Letang underwent successful surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck.

The club also re-confirmed that his window for recovery is 4-6 months.

Though losing Letang is a significant blow, the Pens have to be pleased that this week’s procedure went well, and that the star defenseman is expected to make a full recovery.

Penguins vs. Blue Jackets: Stream on NBC Sports

Pittsburgh played its first playoff game without Letang on Wednesday night, earning a 3-1 win over the Blue Jackets at PPG Paints. With Letang out, the Pens used a six-man defensive unit of Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Ron Hainsey.

Ice time was distributed pretty evenly. Cole was the low man at 18:21, Schutlz the high at 20:07.

Bolts farmhand Taormina wins AHL d-man of the year

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Matt Taormina, the 30-year-old journeyman that’s spent the last two seasons with the Lightning organization, scored a nice accolade on Friday by capturing the Eddie Shore Award, given annually to the AHL’s most outstanding defenseman.

More, from the AHL:

[Taormina] established career highs in goals (14), assists (42) and points (56) in 66 games with Syracuse thus far. He is tied for the league lead in scoring among defensemen and is first in power-play points (29), and shows a plus-9 rating for a Crunch team that has been battling for the top spot in the North Division all season.

Taormina was named a 2016-17 First Team AHL All-Star earlier this week, and played in his third consecutive AHL All-Star Classic back in January.

Undrafted out of Providence College, Taormina has appeared in 59 career NHL contests with the Bolts and Devils. He’s also spent time with the Senators and Sharks organizations.

Several AHLers have used the Shore award to catapult themselves to the next level. Chris Wideman, who won it with Binghamton in 2015, has spent the last two years playing in Ottawa. Pittsburgh’s Justin Schultz won it in ’13, and the Islanders’ Johnny Boychuk captured it in 2009.

Last year’s winner, T.J. Brennan, appeared in seven games for the Leafs during the ’15-16 campaign, and has played all of this year with Philly’s AHL affiliate in Lehigh Valley.

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.

Hobbled Penguins hoping to be ‘healed up right around playoff time’

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Ron Hainsey arrived in Pittsburgh from Carolina a month ago on the verge of reaching the playoffs for the first time in his 14-year career.

The durable defenseman found an odd but perhaps apt way to fit in with his new team: He got hurt. Ten games into his tenure with the Penguins, Hainsey went down with an upper-body injury to join an increasingly long line of familiar faces watching in suits from the press box rather than wearing sweaters on the bench.

“Injuries happen,” Hainsey said on Tuesday after skating with his teammates, an important step toward his hopeful return before the postseason begins next month. “Obviously, this team we have a lot of them.”

So many to so many bold-faced names — from Hainsey and fellow defensemen Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley and Kris Letang to star center Evgeni Malkin and energetic young forwards Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary — that it’s remarkable the defending Stanley Cup champions have been able to hang around in the chase for the Metropolitan Division and the Presidents’ Trophy.

“It’s been crazy around here,” said defenseman Justin Schultz, one of only five players to miss fewer than five games so far. “You see so many guys walking around, it’s wild.”

The wear and tear from trying to keep it together with a threadbare lineup, however, is beginning to show.

Pittsburgh’s hopes of catching first-place Washington took a hit during a third-period implosion on Sunday night at home against Philadelphia as the Flyers poured in four goals over the final 20 minutes of a 6-2 win that left the Penguins three points behind the Capitals with seven games to go.

It was a rare forgettable night in a season that’s showcased both the brilliance of center Sidney Crosby (who’s 42 goals lead the league) and the laser focus preached by coach Mike Sullivan.

There have been few signs of a Stanley Cup hangover. The Penguins have the fewest home losses in the league and they’ve kept Washington and Columbus within arm’s reach despite the kind of health issues their two rivals have largely avoided.

The key now, even with players on the verge of returning, will be keeping it going. While the odds of Pittsburgh emerging from the three-way race – and avoiding a first-round matchup against the other runner-up – are iffy at best, don’t expect the Penguins to ease up in an effort to rest for the playoffs.

“Our experience has been that you just don’t flip a switch and turn it on,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to have to go into each game with a mindset of trying to win.”

Pittsburgh went 8-2 over its final 10 games of the regular season last spring then rolled to the franchise’s fourth championship. Putting together another surge will be difficult, though there were promising signs during a crowded post-practice dressing room.

Sheary, who left the loss to the Flyers with a lower-body injury, practiced on Tuesday and should play on Wednesday when Chicago visits. Jake Guentzel, who suffered a concussion last week after getting hit illegally by Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen, skated but no timetable has been set for his return.

The rookie, who struggled getting off the ice after being leveled by Ristolainen, called the hit “just a hockey play,” though it ended with Ristolainen receiving a three-game suspension.

The line of Guentzel, Sheary and Crosby had almost single-handedly kept Pittsburgh’s offense going with Malkin out. They’re optimistic they’ll get a chance to recreate the mojo before the regular season ends.

“You don’t want to limp into the playoffs, losing a few games,” Sheary said. “I think momentum is a huge thing in this game. If you’re playing well going into the playoffs, I think that carries over big time.”

Getting familiar faces back in the lineup before mid-April is critical.

On that front at least, the Penguins appear to have been spared. It seems everyone has a chance to be in uniform when things get going for real.

“It seems like all the injuries are supposed to be healed up right around playoff time,” Sheary said.

“Hopefully we can get those guys back and use it to our advantage.”

More (more!) injuries in Pittsburgh: Malkin out tonight, Hainsey week-to-week

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Prior to today, the Penguins had already lost Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Bryan Rust, Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin to injury.

So what’s a couple more?

For Pittsburgh, that’ll have to be the mentality after learning that Evgeni Malkin would miss tonight game against New Jersey with a lingering upper-body ailment and, perhaps more distressingly, that trade deadline pickup Ron Hainsey is week-to-week with an upper-body issue of his own.

Malkin, who sits second on the team in points with 72, doesn’t appear to be seriously hurt. He briefly took to the ice for the morning skate before exiting. Head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t comment on the nature of the injury, or the severity.

Hainsey’s injury could be a problem. On its own, that’s a difficult void to fill — the veteran blueliner had appeared in 10 games since coming over from Carolina, and was averaging a shade under 21 minutes per night.

The ailment is even more problematic given the current state of Pittsburgh’s defense.

As mentioned above, Maatta, Daley and Letang are all out of action (part of the reason why Hainsey’s minutes had increased). That left Sullivan to ice a defensive unit comprised of Hainsey, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin, Chad Ruhwedel, Justin Schultz and Mark Streit in Wednesday’s 4-0 loss to the Flyers.

In a related move, the Pens recalled Derrick Pouliot from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Friday. That left them with the following d-pairs…