Thursday, June 23, 2016

Kris Letang from 5-8 to the Stanley Cup

By Larry Wigge

He carried the puck down the left wing, looking to make a play. Then he continued on, circling behind the net. Always surveying for the best scoring chance.

In less than a minute early in the second period of Game 6, Kris Letang went from playmaker extraordinaire to settling into one of those famous holes that goal scorers find.

He got in position to take a feed from Sidney Crosby behind the net and banged in a one-timer at 7:46 for a 3-1 victory over San Jose.

"I like to be dynamic. I like to be on the rush," Letang admitted. "Sometimes we're not winning or we're trailing or I don’t see our game creating chances and stuff like that, so I try to go and I try to do something more and I try to bring a little more to the table.

"You're not going to beat five guys on your own. You have to play the same way, the same game and things will open up."

Letang scored the winning goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins in their Stanley Cup-clinching victory over the Sharks. This is the third consecutive year that the Stanley Cup-winning goal was scored by a defenseman. The Kings' Alec Martinez scored the Cup winner in double-overtime in 2014 and the Blackhawks' Duncan Keith scored the Cup decider in 2015.

Defensemen scoring the winning goal in the clinching game of a Stanley Cup Final series had been a rarity. In fact, before this three-year streak it had happened only four times in the previous 40 years (1973-2013), with those goals scored by Paul Coffey (1985 Oilers), Ulf Samuelsson (1991 Penguins), Uwe Krupp (1996 Avalanche) and Frantisek Kaberle (2006 Hurricanes).

What's more, Letang managed to have a hand in all four of his team's game-winning goals in the Cup final. He becomes only the fourth player to accomplish this feat, the other three are among the greats of the game, Milt Schmidt in 1941, Jean Beliveau in 1965 and Wayne Gretzky in 1987.

It's playoff time and every team is looking for a game changer or a player who can literally change the complexion of the game. Be a difference maker. A quarterback.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can change the complexion of a game ... just like that. Kris Letang is a difference maker or a quarterback as well.

At 6-0, 201-pounds, Letang orchestrates the Pittsburgh Penguins offense.

In each game you can find several game-changing differences that this little defenseman can affect.

All great playmakers ad lib improvising. Letang can often be found working his magic in and around the net, at the mid-boards or at either of the point positions.

This season started out as one to forget for the Penguins. On December 12, Pittsburgh stood in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins also replaced coach Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan.

After a slow start under Sullivan, Letang finished with 16 goals and 51 assists -- the highest point total in his nine-year career. He then scored three goals and 12 assists in 23 games of the playoffs.

He averaged 28:52 per game, taking on top forwards such as Rick Nash of the New York Rangers, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Joe Thornton, all the while getting hit by opposition forecheckers every time they got the chance.

"Tanger is invaluable," Sullivan said. "He just plays so many important minutes for us and in so many situations. He's an elite defenseman. I think he's one of the top defensemen in the league."

Letang is perfectionist who is notorious for watching and re-watching game tape to figure out what he did wrong on plays where goals were scored.

"Kris the best defenseman now in the league," Malkin explained. "He stars in the offensive zone. He makes our offense go."

Crosby adds, "You see how many minutes he logs a game and how important those minutes are --– he's playing power play, penalty kill, he does it all. I think everybody recognizes when he's on the ice and what he generates and the way he can control a game."

New Jersey GM Ray Shero says he like Letang's progress better than when he was with the Penguins.

"I like what I see," Shero said. "He's a smart player. Really good footwork. One of those new-rules guys, obviously. They should be good for him.

"He's a puck-moving guy which, for us moving forward as an organization, we'll be looking for more guys like that."

To think, it wasn't until midget hockey that Letang grew from 5-9 to 6-0 feet tall and was switched from forward to defense. He was just developing on defense when when was the 61st chosen by the Penguins in the third-round of NHL Entry Draft in 2005.

"I was 5-9, 155 pounds when I switched to defense," the Montreal native explained. "I was still pretty small -- 5-10, 185 pounds when I was drafted. I worked out each year to build myself up. I don't want to be the small player."

It's the evolution of Letang's defensive game that has earned him a place in this team's core, making him a considerable candidate in the Norris Trophy race for the best defenseman in the game.  He's a very smart power-play quarterback and plays a clean, efficient, mistake-free game. He's a very subtle player, but very underrated. His poise under pressure, neat spin moves and great puck movement decisions give him a good shot to overcome the size handicap.

Growing up, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were his favorite players.

"Mario came over and talked to me and gave me a lot of tips," Letang explained. "Even now that he's retired, he still stops in our locker room all the time to make sure we're never too nervous about a game."

Kris Letang has grown up a lot.

"When I was 5 my Mom (Christiane) was carrying me everywhere," Letang recalled with fondness. "I alawys had a passion for the game of hockey."

After taking his turn to hoist the Cup, Letang carried his son in his arms on the ice and took a moment to reflect the journey he has made since first hoisting the Cup with the Penguins as a kid himself in 2009.

"Second year I won the Cup, so I thought it was a guarantee, you know?" Letang said. "Seven years without it. I enjoyed this one. It's a hard accomplishment."

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