In Game 3 of last year’s horrific quarterfinal matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers, Kris Letang had the most undisciplined game of his NHL career, and arguably his worst.
The defenseman took a cross-checking penalty that led to a Flyers goal. Shortly thereafter, he got in a fight with Kimmo Timonen, then was ejected from the game. To make matters worse, he attempted to shush the Philadelphia crowd like Max Talbot did in 2009. Like the Penguins, he was unsuccessful.
This all came after the Penguins, Letang in particular, preached being more disciplined and defensively responsible after the debacle in Game 2 where they surrendered eight goals. The response was another eight goals allowed and 89 penalty minutes including 17 minutes from Letang.
After Game 3, I wrote about how Letang’s lack of discipline covered up his reputation as one of the most talented players in the league.
This year has been different for the French-Canadian defenseman. Letang finished with eight penalty minutes in 35 games, second only to Brandon Sutter (4) for a Penguins player participating in more than half the regular season games. His 38 points ties him with PK Subban among all defensemen which is why his discipline has been an overlooked luxury.
But the playoffs are a different animal.
In previous seasons it has become pretty apparent that Letang’s temper heats up with the outside temperature. In 385 career regular season games Letang has 245 penalty minutes. In 65 career playoff games, he has 75 penalty minutes. His most disciplined playoff season was in 2010 when he registered only six penalty minutes; however, he also had a minus five rating.
Now is the time for Letang to put it all together. He’s going into a contract year and the prime of his career. He will be a Norris Trophy finalists and would have been a clear-cut winner had it not been for missing 13 games with a lower body injury. He seemed to harness his aggressiveness when attacking the puck and the opposing team and it will be this kind of reliability needed to win a second Stanley Cup and earn a big contract.
Luckily, the Penguins’ first round opponent isn’t the type of team to tug on emotional strings. The New York Islanders are very inexperienced and they rarely play with an edge. Matt Carkner is a defenseman with a reputation of nasty hits but that’s about it. The Islanders had the 8th fewest major penalties and the second fewest penalty minutes in the league. On top of that, the Penguins hold the power play advantage, statistically. So the Islanders will look to avoid getting into a shoving match.
That doesn’t mean opportunities wont arise for other teams to try and take advantage of Letang’s short temper. The Ottawa Senators certainly wont have any issues going after the Penguins’ stars considering they’re still sour about the Matt Cooke-Erik Karlsson situation. The New York Rangers are a physical defensive team, as are the Boston Bruins; both delivering punishing hits and an elbow every now and then. If Letang takes the bait, he’ll be incapacitated for the rest of the series and the Penguins will struggle to survive.
When people speak of the talent in Pittsburgh, Kris Letang’s name is certainly one of the top 5 names mentioned. He is the cornerstone of the defense and a necessity for the Penguins’ success in the postseason. The Penguins talked about being a better team in their own end by being more disciplined. That means taking fewer penalties AND managing emotions from taking players out of position, whether it means trying to force a big play or hitting a player out of frustration. Letang has done an excellent job of containing his emotions this season, and he’ll need to do it during the playoffs.