Kris Letang is playing the best hockey of his career

When the Pittsburgh Penguins face the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday night, they will officially start the second half of their season.

If you were to hand out mid-season awards, defenseman Kris Letang would probably not only be the Penguins’ first half MVP (and with all due respect to the great season Sidney Crosby is having, Letang probably has been their best), he would be one of the top contenders for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defender.

Other than Mark Giordano in Calgary and maybe Morgan Rielly in Toronto, there probably has not been anyone around the league that has impacted their team from the blue line as much as Letang has this season.

What makes it even more noteworthy for Letang is that the 2017-18 season was so brutal for him.

He was coming off of another significant injury that robbed him of half of the 2016-17 season and he was never really 100 percent at any point in the year.

That resulted in a terribly inconsistent year that was probably his worst full season performance in the NHL. Given that it was coming on the heels of the team winning its second consecutive Stanley Cup, and this time without him playing a major role due to missing the entire postseason with the aforementioned injury, it started another round of “Should the Penguins trade Kris Letang?” chatter around Pittsburgh and the league.

That chatter seems to happen at least once every year, and every year the Penguins are smart enough to know his value, keep him, and more often than not watch him make a huge impact.

The Penguins had every possible reason to bet on a bounce back season from Letang, and they have not only gotten it in a big way, they might be getting the best season of his career. Given that he is a multiple Cup winning defensemen who has been one of the most prolific scoring defenders in the NHL, and has finished in the top 10-of the Norris voting five times (including three times in the top-six), that is a bold statement. But when you look at his on-ice performance it is difficult to argue against that claim.

Let’s just take a minute and look at where he stands among the league’s top defenders at the moment.

When it comes to his offensive impact, his tied for the third most goals (10), is sixth in total points (39) and fifth in shots on goal (123).

Among defenders that have logged at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time so far this season, he is 18th in total shot attempt share (over 54 percent), second in goal differential (64 percent), and 22nd in scoring chance differential (55 percent).

Here is the list of defenders that sit in the top-25 in all six of those categories (goals, points, shots, shot attempt share, goal differential, scoring chance share) at this point in the season: Kris Letang, Mark Giordano.

That is it. That is the list. That is only two names.

And that is a great reflection of how dominant Letang (and Giordano). At least from a numbers point of view.

Even more than the numbers, Letang seems to have his burst back on the ice. When he is at his best there are few defenders in the league (or players in general) that can skate with him. Not only when it comes to leading the rush and joining the attack in the offensive zone, but his ability to recover and catch up to the play when it goes the other direction. He tends to play a high-risk game in that regard where he is going to take some chances when it comes to attacking offensively. But it usually works, and it’s a big part of what makes him such a dynamic player. When it doesn’t work, one of his best traits is his ability to recover and get back into the play. It’s not uncommon to see him lead the rush deep into the offensive zone and then chase the play down from behind when it goes in the other direction and break it up.

All of that was missing from his game a year ago.

All of it is back this season.

He and his regular partner, Brian Dumoulin, have been one of the best defense pairings in the league this season and have helped carry the Penguins’ blue line, taking on the big minutes and big assignments every night while completely dominating them.

It is a big reason why the Penguins have been one of the hottest teams in the league over their past 20 games and have climbed back to the top of the Metropolitan Division standings.

It is all, at this point, Norris Trophy worthy.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Playoff Buzzer: Wild Card teams are 4-for-4

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  • The Washington Capitals blew 2-0 and 3-1 leads to drop Game 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes. Former Capitals player and frequent Game 7 star Justin Williams played a big role in Carolina’s 2OT winning goal.
  • With Carolina’s victory, all four Wild Card teams have advanced to Round 2.

Hurricanes 4, Capitals 3 [2OT] (CAR wins 4-3)
The Capitals got off to a terrific start. Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson scored in the first 6:23 minutes of the contest, but rather than fall apart, the Hurricanes dug in. It wasn’t until 2:56 of the third period when the Hurricanes caught up thanks to a Jordan Staal goal. Washington battled hard for the rest of the third period, but once overtime started the game was all Carolina until finally they broke through when Brock McGinn tipped in a Jason Williams shot. With that, the defending Stanley Cup champions are done and a franchise that last made the playoffs in 2009 is going to Round 2.

Three Stars

1. Brock McGinn, Carolina Hurricanes.
He got the series-winning goal and registered an assist on Teuvo Teravainen‘s marker. This was the 25-year-old’s first playoff series and prior to it he had 36 goals in 240 career regular season games. Of those 36 goals, only two were game-winners.

2. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes.

Assisted on three of the Hurricanes’ four goals. He also led both teams with 38:27 minutes of ice time in the 2OT contest. He finished the series with nine assists in seven games.

3. Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals.

Got the scoring started just 2:13 minutes into the contest off a superb steal. It was his first goal of the series.

One goal Dougie Hamilton will be happy is forgotten

It didn’t end up defining the game, but Alex Ovechkin outplayed Hamilton on this goal. If Washington won this game, this goal might have been a big part of the story.

Factoids of the night

Thursday’s Games

Game 1: Blue Jackets at Bruins, 7:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Game 1: Stars at Blues, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

No More Champs: Hurricanes oust Capitals in 2OT

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Not even the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals were immune in one of the craziest opening rounds ever seen. Brock McGinn tipped a shot by Justin Williams in double overtime in a series-clinching 4-3 victory for the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7.

Early on, it didn’t look like this would be a dramatic contest. Andre Burakovsky stripped the puck away in the Hurricanes’ zone and then beat goalie Petr Mrazek to put Washington on the board just 2:13 minutes into the game. Just four minutes later, Alex Ovechkin outplayed Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton before feeding the puck to Tom Wilson, who made the game 2-0.

Carolina hung in there though. Sebastian Aho scored a shorthanded goal at 9:51 of the second period to cut the lead in half. Evgeny Kuznetsov regained the two-goal lead at 13:22 of the second period, but Teuvo Teravainen answered right back at 16:37.

Early in the third period, Jordan Staal got a clean shot on Braden Holtby that he managed to get by him. It’s one that Holtby arguably should have gotten, but he didn’t have help on that play either and the end result was the game was tied.

From there, Carolina was a dominant force in overtime and it looked more and more like it was just a matter of time before the Hurricanes beat Holtby one more time. It took a while, but it happened.

Just like that, all four wild-card teams have advanced. Washington is out. Pittsburgh, which won the Cup in 2016 and 2017, is out. Vegas, which got to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, is out. Tampa Bay, which tied an NHL record with 62 wins in the regular season, is out.

This year has reinforced the notion that anything can happen in the playoffs. Carolina will face the New York Islanders in Round 2 and while the Hurricanes might be the underdogs, that hasn’t been a bad spot to be in.

MORE: Round 2 schedule, TV info

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2019: Round 2 schedule, TV info

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We’re down to eight.

With the last Game 7 out of the way in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we can now look ahead to all that Round 2 will bring.

The battle for the 2019 Stanley Cup continues as eight teams vie to become this year’s champion, and there won’t be a repeat after the Washington Capitals got bounced in Game 7 on Wednesday. All four wildcard teams are in. All four divisional winners are out. It’s been a wild ride and there are still three rounds to go.

Here is the full Round 2 schedule with the all-important TV information: 

MORE: 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

For the third consecutive postseason, NBC Sports’ coverage of Stanley Cup Playoff first-round games on NBCUniversal cable networks (NBCSN, USA Network and CNBC), as well as NHL Network, will air side-by-side and will be available for streaming on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app in local markets alongside regional sports network game telecasts. (Local blackouts apply in Las Vegas and Pittsburgh in the first round).


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Capitals, Hurricanes meet in Game 7

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Game 7: Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals, 7:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 3-3)
NBCSN
Call: Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Tonight’s pre-game coverage on NBCSN begins at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones.

NBC Sports begins its exclusive coverage of the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs tomorrow with a Game 1 doubleheader on NBCSN. Coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins, followed by the Dallas Stars-St. Louis Blues series at 9:30 p.m. ET. Thursday’s doubleheader pre-game coverage begins on NBCSN at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live.