PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to welcome back the one player that could significantly alter their 2018-19 season, and are also facing the possibility of being without the one player they may not be able to replace.
Matt Murray, the team’s regular starting goalie over the past two years, is expected to be back in the lineup on Saturday night for the first time since Nov. 17 when the team plays host to the Los Angeles Kings.
His return could potentially coincide with the loss of their top defenseman, Kris Letang.
Letang had to leave the Penguins’ 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins on Friday night with just under eight minutes to play in the third period after he found himself tangled up with Bruins forward Joakim Nordstrom and awkwardly fell to the ice. He struggled to make it back to the bench with an apparent leg injury, and then needed help getting down the tunnel from the team’s bench to the locker room.
When asked after the game if he had any update on Letang’s status, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan simply responded with “no” and gave no other details.
It is still not yet known what his status for Saturday’s game is, or if he will be sidelined for any length of time.
If he is, that would be brutal news for a Penguins team that is trying to play its way back into a solid playoff spot after an inconsistent start to the season. Letang has probably been their best, most irreplaceable player this season and has bounced back from a down 2017-18 season in massive way. He is playing more than 26 minutes per night at a Norris Trophy level. He already has 25 points in 30 games and fairly dominant numbers across the board, from his ability to generate shots, to his possession numbers, to the way he has played alongside his defense partner, Brian Dumoulin.
When asked about potentially losing Letang, Dumoulin said “Obviously it’s tough, we need that guy in the lineup.”
He is not wrong.
The Letang-Dumoulin duo has been one of the NHL’s best this season. During 5-on-5 play the Penguins are outscoring teams by a 28-14 margin when Letang and Dumoulin are on the ice, and controlling more than 57 percent of the total shot attempts and more than 58 percent of the scoring chances.
It is a night and day difference between them and their bottom-two pairings that are currently made up of Olli Maatta and Jamie Oleksiak on the second period, and Jack Johnson and Marcus Pettersson on the third. When Letang and Dumoulin are not on the ice together the Penguins’ goal differential drops to minus-1 while their shot attempt and scoring chance percentage all plunge to under 48 percent.
The common refrain from the Penguins on Friday night is that they have succeeded in Letang’s absence before, specifically during the 2016-17 season when they won the Stanley Cup with him missing the second half of the regular season and the entire postseason.
“We’ve done it before,” said Dumoulin. “We know we can do it. We’ve been carrying eight defensemen so far this year, everyone can play, everyone needs time and action and we want to just keep it simple as a defense corp if he is missing.”
“Because we think we have NHL defenseman,” said Sullivan when asked why he thinks the team would be able to succeed again if Letang has to miss time. “Juuso [Riikola] has played extremely well. Chad [Ruhwedel] is an NHL defenseman. He’s played for our team for a few years, he’s played in the playoffs, he’s won the Stanley Cup with us. These guys are NHL defensemen, and regardless of who is in our lineup we believe we have enough to win.”
Honestly, there is no other approach for the coaches and players to take. But looking at things objectively from an outside perspective it’s easy to see how that team was very fortunate to win without such an important player, and also how different this team is.
With Justin Schultz already sidelined (and he is still expected to miss a couple more months), the only defenders still left over from the 2017 Stanley Cup winning team are Maatta, Dumoulin, and Ruhwedel, the latter of which only appeared in six playoff games that year and has only been a role player this season.
This team also isn’t getting the same level of goaltending that 2017 received, and that was probably the biggest driving force behind that championship run.
Which brings us to the news of Murray’s likely return on Saturday.
Injuries and ineffectiveness have limited him to just 11 games this season and an .877 save percentage that is among the worst in the league. He was activated from injured reserve late in the week and backed up Casey DeSmith in the Penguins past two games, including for DeSmith’s 48-save performance on Friday night.
Overall DeSmith has done a fine job filling in, mixing in some spectacular saves and games with some rough patches as well. But if they are going to get back to the top of the NHL and compete for a championship again it is awfully hard to see them doing that without Murray playing some kind of a significant role in that.
Goaltending was one of the biggest factors in the Penguins’ early postseason exit a year ago (and some of their regular season struggles), and it’s played a role in their early struggles this season. Even if Murray and DeSmith end up splitting time they’re going to need strong performances from both no matter who is in the lineup on defense.
The position is going to take on even more importance if their top defender has to miss any extended time as they attempt to play their way out of their mediocre start.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.