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Penguins should bet on a Kris Letang rebound

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The relationship between Kris Letang and Pittsburgh Penguins fans. Sometimes it’s complicated.

For more than a decade Letang has been a No. 1 defenseman for the Penguins, and for many of those years he has been a top-10, and at times maybe even a top-five, player in the league at his position. But there’s always been a sense (at least from this perspective) that he has never really been fully appreciated for just how good he has been, and the criticisms are always the same.

Turns the puck over too much.

Not good in his own end and takes too many chances.

Makes too much money.

Gets hurt too much.

There is an element of truth to some of that, but it doesn’t mean what his harshest critics think it means. Yes, he is guilty of turnovers at times. But so is every high-level player that plays a lot of minutes and always has the puck on their stick. Take a look at the NHL’s leaders in giveaways at the end of any season. It is a list of All-Stars. He does take some chances and at times gambles, whether it be pinching in the offensive zone or trying to make a play out of his own zone. But that is also a part of what makes him the dynamic player that he is. He is capable of doing things and making plays due to his skating and skill that other players not only can not make, but probably can not even attempt.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

It basically comes down to this: He is going to make some mistakes, but as long as the positive plays outweigh the negative plays you have to to take the bad with the good.

Sometimes his freakish athletic ability makes it possible for him to wipe out his own mistake with a brilliant play of its own.

And while he has missed a significant portion of his career due to injury, he’s probably been a little underpaid given the market rate for top-pairing defenseman that play at his level.

But because the bad plays are usually the result of that aggressiveness they will stand out more. And because hockey is a game of mistakes, we tend to focus almost exclusively on that big mistake when it happens and allow it to drive the discussion around that player.

That brings us to Letang’s 2017-18 season (and postseason) for the Penguins. To be fair, it was not a great season, and it reached its low point in Game 5 of the team’s second-round series when a third period breakdown allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov to score a game-tying goal just one minute into the third period, completely changing the direction of the series. The series ended with Letang trying to chase Kuznetsov down from behind on a breakaway as he potted the series-clinching goal. Viewed in the context of the Penguins actually winning the Stanley Cup a year ago without having Letang for any of the playoff games, it made him a focal point for blame when the team did not win this season (nevermind that they probably do not win that Stanley Cup the previous year without him, this is the ultimate what have you done for me lately business).

What made this season even tougher for Letang is that it wasn’t just the mistakes of aggressiveness or the Game 5 blunder against Kuznetsov that made it an off year for him. He seemed to get beat in one-on-one situations more often than usual. He also saw a pretty sharp decline in his offensive production and by the end of the year and playoffs was replaced by Justin Schultz on the team’s top power play unit.

Physically, Letang has been through hell and back in recent years due to both injury and health issues.

The most recent example was the neck injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season and all of the playoffs.

On Wednesday’s locker clean out day in Pittsburgh, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he had an inclination that the injury, surgery, and recovery in such a short period of time was probably going to be a lot for Letang to overcome.

He also talked about the inconsistency.

“He had stages of the year where he was really good for us and stages where he wasn’t at his best,” said Sullivan. “By no means does it diminish what we think of Kris as a player. He’s a guy that we think is certainly one of the elite defensemen in the league.”

Letang himself admitted that he thought it would be easier to come back and that he might have lost a little bit of his conditioning.

The thing about Letang is that for all of the struggles he had at times this year there were still elements of his game that were in place.

Fifty-one points in 79 games was a down year for him. That still placed him 17th in the league among all defenders in the NHL.

When he was on the ice the Penguins attempted more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts during even-strength play. Among defenders that played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time that was the 12th best mark in the entire league, so the team was still controlling possession and the shot chart, which should be seen as an encouraging sign. Players that help drive possession that much usually see that pay off when it comes to goals for and against. But of the top-20 defenders in the league in shot attempt percentage, Letang was one of just five that had a negative on-ice goal differential on the season. The other four (Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifan, and Brett Pesce) all played for the Carolina Hurricanes, a team with infamous goaltending issues.

Part of Letang’s issue when it came to goals for and against was his own inconsistency.

Another part of it was the Penguins’ inconsistent goaltending, both from starter Matt Murray when he was healthy, as well his revolving door of backups that all struggled. Improved play from that position would go a long way toward correcting both his and the Penguins’ 5-on-5 issues as a team (because it wasn’t just Letang that struggled in those situations for the Penguins this season).

In the end, though, he is capable of more than he showed this season, and everybody involved knows it.

That is why no matter how much criticism he takes, how many times there is a call for the Penguins to trade him, they are not going to do it. They shouldn’t do it, anyway. Because when Letang is right and on top of his game there are only a small handful of players in the NHL that are better than him at his position, and you are never going to get that upside back in a trade.

Especially now when his value is probably at an all-time low given the injury recovery and the fact he is coming off of a down year. Part of what made the Penguins such a success the past few years was pouncing on trade partners that were dealing players at lower value (Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, and Schultz all come to mind). The good player usually rebounds. The good — and smart — teams usually make sure it happens for them and not somebody else.

Given his track record there is every reason to believe he can — and probably will — get back to that level.

The Penguins should be more than willing to take that bet that he gets there next season.

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.

Capitals eliminate Penguins, Ovechkin gets first taste of East final

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The Washington Capitals did it. They finally slayed the black and gold dragon known as the Pittsburgh Penguins.

To really sell how tough a mountain this was to climb, of course the Penguins forced the Capitals to end it via sudden death.

Evgeny Kuznetsov experienced plenty of frustrating moments on Monday, but the talented center ended Game 6 in overtime with a semi-breakaway 2-1 goal. It only makes sense that Alex Ovechkin was the one to send Kuznetsov on that breakaway, and for Sidney Crosby to be on the ice for that season-ending goal.

With that, the Penguins’ bid at a “threepeat” is over after the Capitals took this second-round series 4-2.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Game 6 feels like a decent microcosm of the series as a whole. There were plenty of sloppy moments, surprisingly tepid stretches, and Washington ended up scoring the majority of the big goals (aside from that bizarre Penguins win in Game 1).

For much of this series, the first period has been barren when it comes to goals, and this one followed suit with a 0-0 start. Alex Chiasson gave the Capitals a 1-0 goal on one that Matt Murray would like back, and there was a surprising amount of doom and gloom surfacing for some Pittsburgh fans. To be fair, the Penguins looked remarkably flat at times with their season on the line.

That doesn’t mean that they just rolled over and gave Game 6 up, mind you.

Kris Letang‘s 1-1 goal included a fortunate bounce, yet the Penguins’ play improved. Granted, the Capitals still seemed like the better team during much of the third period and overtime, yet Matt Murray helped the Penguins hang in there.

The Capitals ended up eliminating the Penguins with Nicklas Backstrom missing Game 6 with an injury and Tom Wilson wrapping up his controversial suspension. Washington likely would have taken a victory over the Penguins under any array of circumstances, but advancing this way has to be a true confidence-booster.

And, of course, an igloo-sized relief.

Ovechkin & Co. won’t exactly get eased into their maiden voyage in the third round, as the Tampa Bay Lightning stand as a fresh, formidable opponent. Chances are, the Lightning will be far less leaky than the Penguins appeared at times during this series, including tonight.

Despite some incredible play from Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel during this series, the Penguins couldn’t best their rivals this time around. After consecutive titles, they must lick their wounds following their first failure with Matt Murray in net and Mike Sullivan behind the bench.

(Yes, that’s quite the accomplishment, and one that might soothe some wounds in Pittsburgh.)

It’s up to management to make sure that this wasn’t the last gasp of a great era. That sounds tough to fathom, yet championship windows can slam shut with cold suddenness in sports. These Penguins aren’t spring chickens, after all, and Game 6 gave the impression that some key guys were fatigued, hurt, or both.

Wait, about the Penguins being a dragon or spring chickens… maybe they were more like Washington’s Bowser?

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.

The Buzzer: Penguins, Predators even things up

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2017 Stanley Cup Finalists tie up their series

Penguins 3, Capitals 1 (Series tied 2-2)

If the Bruins can win Game 4 tomorrow, than all four of the second-round series could be tied 2-2, at least for a time. For all the jokes at Washington’s expense, these Alex OvechkinSidney Crosby Era series tend to go long, with two extended to seven and one finishing in six. This one will go at least six after Jake Guentzel, Crosby, and the Penguins powered through to win this one. Guentzel scored the opening goal and iced it with an empty-netter, while Evgeni Malkin‘s goal survived the dreaded review process to stand as the game-winner. There was also some fisticuffs between Kris Letang and T.J. Oshie and an injury scare for Matt Murray.

Predators 2, Jets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

Game 3 was a wild one that felt “defense and goalie optional” at times. One of the promising things about this series is that both Nashville and Winnipeg can really clamp down when they make a point to do so and also get a few bounces/saves. Pekka Rinne, P.K. Subban, and the rest of the Predators showed that they can hang with the Jets, and just importantly, nurture a small lead into a hard-nosed win. Read more about the Preds’ Game 4 win here and also enjoy Rinne’s remarkable save.

Three Stars

1. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators – After a rough outing in Game 3 that even included an ill-advised penalty, Rinne was fantastic in Game 4. Holding the Jets to one goal is an accomplishment in itself, especially since he blanked them for about 59 of 60 regulation minutes. Rinne also was perfect at even strength (29-for-29 there, 31 of 32 saves overall). This wasn’t just a matter of stopping “quantity over quality” shots.

If the highlight reel stops aren’t enough, consider this heat map via Natural Stat Trick:

Not an easy night in net, but Rinne cooled the Jets.

2. Jake Guentzel and 3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins – We might as well lump these two together as the other two stars of the night. Guentzel gets the nod in this case because he scored two goals while Crosby collected two assists (on both of Guentzel’s goals). One could see it go the other way – number 87 often does a lot of work to set up his linemates – but either way, it was an impressive showing. In fact, the Penguins might be calling upon these two to do a little too much.

There are some other decent candidates from tonight’s games. P.K. Subban scored the game-winner for Nashville and continues to be a workhorse on defense. After rough Game 3 outings, all four of the goalies managed solid-to-strong work in their Game 4 starts.

Rinne, Guentzel, and Crosby were the three biggest difference-makers, though.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Factoids

Guentzel is really doing some incredible things. Crosby boosts his numbers considerably, but spin it whatever way you’d like, this is impressive:

P.K. Subban is a playoff performer, and not just because of his three-game goal streak or the stat below. These types of facts don’t hurt, either:

Tough night for Alex Ovechkin, which probably helps to explain Washington only managed three SOG in the third period despite the Penguins’ lead. There were other signs of effort, however, including seven hits by Ovechkin.

Friday’s games

Tampa Bay Lightning at Boston Bruins, Game 4, 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN
San Jose Sharks at Vegas Golden Knights, Game 5, 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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.

Penguins – Capitals nastiness boils over in Letang – Oshie fight

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Following two controversial Tom Wilson hits and a controversial three-game suspension, it was fair to wonder if tensions might boil over between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4.

Both teams were wise to generally keep their emotions in check, too, as special teams factored into three of the four goals in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 win (the Penguins went 2-for-4 while the Capitals went 1-for-3). Now, you can discount Jake Guentzel‘s second goal of Game 4 since it was an empty-netter on the power play, but either way … these teams showed that they can make opponents pay for going to the penalty box. At least, without taking an opposing player with them.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The latter situation emerged with a bit less than a minute remaining in Game 4. After some tense exchanges, Kris Letang and T.J. Oshie engaged in an angry-looking fight. It didn’t last very long, but it was quite the spectacle, as you won’t see many fights during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Looking at the Hockey Fights listings for Letang and Oshie provides some interesting additional context for this bout, which you can witness in the video above this post’s headline.

To little surprise, neither high-skill player is all that likely to drop the gloves. Still, they both have shown a willingness to fight on occasion, including during postseason play. Oshie fought Brayden Schenn during the 2016 postseason, while Letang is credited with three postseason bouts before this tiff, although the last one came the postseason of 2011-12.

With the series now tied 2-2, it’s likely that we’ll see some testy moments now that things boil down to a best-of-three. You can bet that Oshie and Letang will work – and fight? – hard to try to get the last laugh once it’s over.

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.

Penguins coach on Wilson hit: ‘At some point we hope the league might do something’

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PITTSBURGH — Forget that the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have been two of the best teams in the NHL over the past decade. Forget that they possess the two greatest players of this generation — heck, they are two of the greatest players in the history of the sport — in Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Forget that the former scored his eighth goal of the playoffs on Tuesday, and that the latter continued what has been to this point a marvelous and dominant postseason performance with his eighth goal of the playoffs to complete a third period comeback and lift the Capitals to a 4-3 win, giving them a 2-1 lead in the series against their long-time nemesis.

This series, no matter who wins it or loses it, is no longer about any of that. It is no longer about the two superstars. It is no longer about Pittsburgh’s quest for a three-peat, or the Capitals’ quest to break through the second-round glass ceiling.

This series is, at least for now, the Tom Wilson series.

For the second time in as many games, and for the third time in these playoffs, another player had to leave a game with an injury — this one a significant injury — as a result of yet another controversial hit from the Capitals’ forward.

This time the unlucky recipient was Penguins rookie forward Zach Aston-Reese — joining Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg in the first round, and Brian Dumoulin, Aston-Reese’s teammate, in this round  — as he was crushed in front of the Capitals’ bench. He remained on the ice for several moments before finally bringing himself to his feet and slowly skating to the locker room. Just as there was on Sunday when Brian Dumoulin had to exit the game, there was no penalty called on the play.

All four officials had a lengthy discussion after the play.

Paul Devorski, the NHL’s on-site supervisor, spoke to a pool reporter after the game to explain what was going on there.

“When we have a big hit like that, and there’s a lot of stuff going on on the ice, our guys come together,” said Devorski. “Obviously both referees didn’t put their arm up, so obviously they didn’t think there was a penalty. So now they bring in the linesmen, who if they think it’s a major penalty, they’ll tell the referees. So they all got together and they said, ‘You know what, we’ve got a good, clean check here.”

Devorski’s brother, Greg Devorski, was one of the linesman in the game. Ryan Gibbons was the other. The referees were Kevin Pollock and Francois St. Laurent.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

After the game an obviously irritated Mike Sullivan revealed the extent of Aston-Reese’s injury, perhaps in an effort to grab the attention of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. After all, the result of the hit often times seems to play a role in what punishment is handed out.

“Well, we just have to stay focussed,” said Sullivan, when asked how the team has to try and maintain its composure in the wake of that play.

“We lose a guy to a broken jaw that is going to require surgery and a concussion because of another high hit to the head. At some point we would hope that the league might do something. But as far as we’re concerned, all we can control is what is within our power and that is our focus on the game. That is where our focus will be.”

Sullivan really didn’t need to call attention to any of it, though.

Not only does the league review everything, but the head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, former long-time enforcer George Parros, was in attendance in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. He had a front row seat for all of it. What he and his staff decide to do in the wake of this one will be anybody’s guess, though recent history probably gives us a good indication of where they might go.

Just as was the case with the Wennberg hit in the first-round, and just as their was with the Dumoulin hit on Sunday, and just as there has been with pretty much every controversial, borderline hit that Wilson has delivered in his career, there is again enough gray area here — or unclear views on replay, or anything else that seems to happen when these hits get delivered — to leave everything open to debate.

Mike Sullivan simply called it a high hit.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz also weighed in, not only on the hit, but Wilson in general.

“Tom is obviously a big body, he is tremendously strong and he hits hard,” said Trotz. “My first look at the hit, both guys are bracing for it, it is shoulder to shoulder and he just blew through him. There are very passionate fan bases, we have a passionate fan base. Pitt does, too. You can’t be neutral. That’s why there is a neutral party that looks at it. We just say all along whatever the league decides, we are good with it. To me it was a hard hockey hit. If you want my opinion that is what I saw. It was shoulder to shoulder.”

When Trotz was asked a follow-up that included the update on Aston-Reese’s status, he declined further comment and said he didn’t care about what Sullivan said.

“I already said what I am going to say about the hit, I don’t think I need to comment anymore, and I really don’t care what Sully said,” said Trotz. “I’m not on their medical team, so I couldn’t tell you. All I can say is I saw the hit, both guys braced for it, shoulder on shoulder, and I don’t know the extent of their player so I don’t think I should comment on it.”

[Related: Wilson enrages Penguins with another controversial hit]

The Penguins were also not happy that Wilson was seen laughing on the bench after the play.

“I get the physical game. I get the physical play. I’ve been on the wrong side of it,” said Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. “At the end of the day I respect what kind of game he plays. But you don’t laugh at somebody getting hurt. You don’t do that.”

Justin Schultz called it “disrespectful.”

The Capitals did not make Wilson available to the media after the game.

Now we play the waiting game on Wednesday to see if Wilson is summoned for a disciplinary hearing.

Given that he was actually penalized during the game for the Wennberg hit and still did not receive a suspension, and did not have a hearing for the Dumoulin hit, it would be awfully hard to believe the league would draw the line here on this.

That means Wilson will probably be back on the ice for Game 4 on Thursday where he will no doubt end up being the center of attention, whether it be before the game when both sides are asked about him or his play, or something he does during the game.

Sure, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby might score some more goals.

Might even be a great game with another fantastic finish.

But make no mistake, this is now the Tom Wilson series.

UPDATE: Wilson will have a DoPS hearing on Wednesday.

Related: On Tom Wilson, player safety, and avoiding suspensions

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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.