The journey back to the Stanley Cup Final hasn’t been easy for the Penguins.
Injuries plague every team during the two-month tournament. But for the Penguins to make it back to this point is truly a wonder considering they’ve been without their No. 1 defenseman for the entire postseason.
Kris Letang hasn’t played a game since Feb. 21 versus Carolina. Neck surgery in April put him out for four to six months, and although there were rumblings of a very, very small chance he may return in the final, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan quickly quashed those.
Letang scored three goals and 15 points in last year’s playoffs, but also led the team by averaging close to 29 minutes of ice time per game. He was the power play quarterback. He played on the penalty kill. No one else on last year’s team even came close his ice time mark, with Trevor Daley second in that category at more than six minutes fewer than Letang.
That is a huge loss for the 2016-17 Penguins.
Missing a top defenseman for the entire playoffs would be a huge loss for any team. It ultimately might even mark the beginning of the end of a team’s chances.
Pittsburgh’s cast of forwards is, of course, impressive. They’re led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, but they’ve also seen a breakout performance from rookie Jake Guentzel. Having great goaltending — a distinction shared by Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray throughout these playoffs — has been a key factor, as well.
Yet, the Penguins have made it by Columbus in the opening round, before outlasting both the Capitals and Senators in grueling seven-game series with Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey — he’s playing in his first postseason at the age of 36 — now leading the way in ice time at 21:49 and 21:06, respectively, and a group that includes Daley, Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Mark Streit and Chad Ruhwedel.
Those are the defensemen Sullivan has called upon throughout these playoffs. It hasn’t been an easy go. The Predators forecheck had given Pittsburgh’s defense plenty of problems moving the puck out of their own end. But they also managed their best game of this series — and, it can be argued, of the entire playoffs — in the blowout Game 5 victory that put the Penguins on the brink of back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
A great deal of attention has been placed on the production Nashville has received from its vaunted blue line in these playoffs, and for good reason. On Thursday, it was the Penguins ‘D’ that contributed in a big way.
It started with a power play goal from Justin Schultz and ended with Hainsey finishing off a great rush up the ice on a pass from Malkin. In the end, the Penguins received five points total from their defensemen in the win.
“I’ve said on a number of occasions throughout the course of this playoffs that our defense group is, in a lot of ways, the unsung heroes of this team,” said Sullivan on Friday.
“I think they fly under the radar, for obvious reasons. You know, we have a lot of dynamic forwards that make a lot of great plays through the course of games, that a lot of times on a lot of nights become the story line. But this team doesn’t have success if that group of defensemen doesn’t play the way that they’ve played throughout the course of this playoffs.”
Now, they’re on the cusp of winning another title. No team in the salary cap era has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. To repeat as champion without a true No. 1 defenseman would be an even greater feat for the Penguins.