Predators forecheck giving Penguins’ d-men plenty of problems

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For the Pittsburgh Penguins, a magical fix doesn’t appear on the way.

Kris Letang has missed these entire playoffs, which is a tremendous loss. Injuries, particularly on defense and specifically to one of the best blue liners in the NHL, have been an issue for the Penguins throughout the postseason.

In Letang’s case, he was sidelined before the playoffs even began.

Yet, they’ve managed to make it this far — two wins away from winning back-to-back Stanley Cup titles. Game 5 of the series goes Thursday in Pittsburgh.

But it was evident during Monday’s Game 4, a victory for the Predators, who tied the series at two games apiece, that Nashville’s forecheck gave the Penguins’ group of defensemen — Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Ron Hainsey — plenty of problems.

At one point during the final seconds of the middle period, after another relentless forecheck hemmed Pittsburgh in its own end and unable to break out, it eventually began to look as if Nashville had a power play. That wasn’t the case, although it might’ve appeared differently at first glance, as the Predators worked the puck around.

“They’re right on top of the puck all time, forcing turnovers and taking away our time and space,” said Penguins goalie Matt Murray. “I think we got a lot better as the game went on, making our decisions a little bit quicker coming out of our zone. I think that helped us out a lot compared to previous games.”

Now, it was interesting following Game 4 that TSN hockey insider Darren Dreger didn’t completely slam the door on the possibility — or at least the notion — that Letang could return late in this series. Letang had neck surgery in April, although the news of his impending operation and playoff absence had been revealed before the postseason.

More from Dreger on TSN:

“I sense that there is a slight chance. Now prior to this series, I reached out to the Pittsburgh Penguins management and asked that very question: ‘If this series was to go deep, is it possible Letang could come back?’ And the response was, ‘No.’ But that’s not necessarily the feeling that I’m getting around the organization right now. I would say that it’s a long shot. It’s highly unlikely, but it’s not impossible. But keep in mind, he had neck surgery for a herniated disc back in early April. The prognosis was four-to-six months, so we’re two months into the recovery. Again, at best, I think it’s a long shot.”

Again, it doesn’t appear that there will be a magical fix on the way. Although, Mark Streit could still be an option if the Penguins coaching staff decides to make a change for Game 5.

Acquired at the trade deadline, as Pittsburgh bolstered its depth on the blue line, the 39-year-old Streit has played only three times in these playoffs, his last game on May 23 versus the Ottawa Senators. He had a pair of assists in three games in that series.

“You know, our blueline crew, they’re a simple bunch,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “They’re trying to make plays to get out of our end zone. They’re trying to help us along that offensive blueline. I don’t think we have anybody back there that wows you offensively.

“You know, they’re a simple bunch and they’re effective. I think they help us at both ends of the rink. I think they’re trying to play the game the right way. What I really like about them is their compete level. As I’ve said all along here, they’re not perfect by any stretch. But these guys are competing.”

Related:

For Penguins’ defense, it’s been a group effort to replace Letang

Though sidelined, Letang does best to boost Penguins drive for a repeat