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.

Rangers beat Penguins in OT thanks to Kakko’s big night

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Kaapo Kakko looked dominant, at times, against men before he was drafted, including versus some NHL talent during the 2019 IIHF World Championship. The feeling was that he could make an immediate and successful jump from being the second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft to becoming an instant impact player for the New York Rangers, possibly outshining top pick Jack Hughes for the Devils.

A little more than a month into his career, it’s been up-and-down for Kakko, but we might just look at Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins as a breakthrough moment.

Rangers start strong

Kakko took advantage of a bodacious Brendan Lemieux pass to score the first goal of Tuesday’s game, then ended up collecting the game-winner in overtime as the Rangers beat the Penguins 3-2 (OT). You could call it a big night not just for Kakko, but the Rangers’ youth in general, as Adam Fox set up Kakko’s OT game-winner, and also scored the Rangers’ second goal off of a great feed by Artemi Panarin.

Here’s that OT-winner for your viewing pleasure:

The Rangers dominated the first period, ending in 2-0, and credit to Matt Murray for keeping it from being any worse. Natural Stat Trick’s period-by-period graph provides another way of showing how dramatic the bad start was for Pittsburgh:

Penguins roll with the punches, and break a slump

The point’s been made that the Penguins have had a knack for rallying lately, and they did again on Tuesday — just not for the win.

Pittsburgh scored two goals in the second period to tie things up. Maybe the biggest sigh of relief came on the second tally, and not just because it made the game 2-2 at the time. After going 0-for-28 in their last power-play opportunities and failing to score on the man advantage for almost a month, Jared McCann finally ended that drought.

That second-period effort was enough for the Penguins to secure a standings point despite falling behind 2-0 early on, but Fox and Kakko combined for the game-winner.

Kakko is now at six goals and eight points over his first 16 NHL games, while this also marks his first point streak (he scored a goal against the Panthers on Sunday). With that goal and assist, Fox generated his first multi-point game, but the defenseman has already been a quick study (insert Harvard joke), as this pushes his own point streak to five games (two goals, four assists for six points during that span). Fox also has eight points in 16 games this season.

Recent play of both teams

The Penguins will get a dose of the top two picks of the 2019 NHL Draft this week, as their next game is against Hughes and the Devils on Friday. After that, the Penguins play five of their next six games at home from Nov. 16-27, so maybe they’ll get some confidence in breaking that PP drought and at least getting a point with Sidney Crosby on the shelf for an unclear duration of time. Pittsburgh’s record sank to 10-6-2 for 22 points.

The Rangers, meanwhile, continue to quietly build up steam. They’ve gone 4-0-1 in their last five games, five of their last seven (5-1-1) to improve to 8-6-2 overall.

If young players like Kakko and Fox keep improving, the Rangers might just manage more hot stretches down the road in 2019-20.

If there are still growing pains as much as gains … well, at least Kakko & Co. have the ability to make plays like these:

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lights went out during brief – but funny – moment in Bruins game

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The Florida Panthers were on the power play – and dangerous sniper Mike Hoffman had a chance to shoot from the slot – when the lights went out, briefly, at TD Garden on Tuesday night.

Now, this wasn’t like the blackout at Boston Garden during the 1988 Stanley Cup Final, when a Game 4 against the mighty Edmonton Oilers had to be replayed in its entirety in Edmonton because of such an outage. In that case, it went wrong for the Bruins, as they had managed a 3-3 tie during the second period of that nullified contest against that dynastic team.

In Tuesday’s case, you could imagine someone, somewhere – probably in Florida – claiming it was all a big conspiracy. For just a moment or two, the lights went out when the Bruins were killing a penalty. This screen grab of Sportsnet’s video (which you can watch fully above this post’s headline) gives you an idea of Hoffman’s location … if you squint a little. Actually, allow some help, as I fight the urge to go full John Madden in telestrator mode:

Apologies to conspiracy theorists, but these things happen. The brightest side is that it wasn’t a situation where a check was about to be delivered, as that could have made for a dangerous moment.

***

That wasn’t the only wild part of Tuesday’s game. The Bruins had a 4-0 lead in the third period against the Panthers, yet Florida ended up winning 5-4 via a shootout. Wow.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rangers’ Lemieux sets up Kakko for beauty vs. Penguins

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The New York Rangers ended the first period up 2-0 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday (watch live on NBCSN; stream here) thanks, in part, to some tremendous passing.

Most impressively, Brendan Lemieux sent a tremendous long bomb of a pass, beating multiple Penguins defenders, to Kaapo Kakko, who scored what might have been his best goal in the NHL so far by finishing the play with great moves.

This marks the first multi-game point streak for Kakko, 18, who also scored a goal against the Florida Panthers on Sunday. The second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft now has five goals and seven points so far in his rookie season, and still has two periods to add more during his 16th game.

The Penguins failed on two power plays in the first period, pushing them to 0-for-28. They haven’t scored a PPG since mid-October.

[More on the Penguins’ struggling power play]

To make matters worse for the Penguins, Artemi Panarin sent a tremendous pass to defenseman Adam Fox for the 2-0 goal with less than 10 seconds left.

Pittsburgh’s been a slow-starting team quite often in 2019-20, and in some cases have been able to rally for comeback wins. We’ll see if they can pull off another one on Tuesday, as it’s been a very weak start, and it’s possible it could have been more than a 2-0 lead for the Rangers after 20 minutes.

***

The Penguins ended up rallying back to tie the game 2-2, and sent it to overtime. Kakko scored again in OT, however, giving the Rangers the win. More here.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins meet Rangers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins are coming off a 3-2 (SO) win on Saturday – a game they trailed 2-0 midway through the second period. It was their third straight game rallying from a multi-goal deficit. Despite earning the win against Chicago, Sidney Crosby left in the third period with a lower-body injury. He has been ruled out for this game, and his status beyond that is unknown.

Pittsburgh enters this game on a massive power play drought. They have not scored a power play goal in their previous 11 games, going 0-for-25 in that span. The total drought actually extends to the game prior to that, when they failed on their final attempt, so the Pens are 0-for-their-last-26 overall.

Rangers No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad has missed the last six games with an upper-body injury, suffered on Oct. 27 on a hit from Patrice Bergeron. Zibanejad will reportedly not travel with the team to Florida, meaning he is out for at least the next three games. He was leading the team with 11 points in nine games prior to his departure from the lineup.

After alternating starts at the beginning of the season, the Rangers have spent the past few weeks giving chunks of consecutive starts to each of their netminders. Alex Georgiev will get the start in this game – his seventh of the season – after Henrik Lundqvist started the previous three.

[COVERAGE OF PENGUINS-RANGERS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Penguins-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Alex GalchenyukJared McCannJake Guentzel
Dominik SimonEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Dominik KahunNick BjugstadSam Lafferty
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Brian DumoulinJohn Marino
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Jack JohnsonJuuso Riikola

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

RANGERS
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Chris Kreider – Filip Chytil – Pavel Buchnevich
Brendan LemieuxBrett HowdenKaapo Kakko
Greg McKeggLias AnderssonBrendan Smith

Libor HajekJacob Trouba
Brady SkjeiTony DeAngelo
Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

MORE: Crosby out vs. Rangers, injury still being evaluated

Brendan Burke and Joe Micheletti will call the Penguins-Rangers showdown from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Paul Burmeister will anchor studio coverage with analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.