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Drive to the Net: Letang shows giving spirit at Christmas

On a night, and really in a season, where little has gone right for the Penguins, it all just sounded and felt so … wrong. The Penguins and Kris Letang hear from the boobirds.

Kris Letang. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

On a night — really, in a season — where little has gone right for the Penguins, it all just sounded and felt so … wrong.

It started with a smattering here or there in the first period Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena, and it built into a crescendo by the second, one loud and unmistakable sound: ‘Boooooooooo00!’

Fairly or not, I’ll let you decide, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions heard a whole lot of that from the pre-Christmas crowd of 18,622 for the remainder of the 4-0 loss to the Ducks, and that couldn’t have been a coincidence: Their favorite team will awake on Christmas Eve at 18-16-3, a notch below the real .500 line and a point out of the basement in the Metropolitan Division.

Granted, I’ve used this term before — as recently as last week with this team — but this has to be rock bottom, right?

If it wasn’t for the group, it had to be for Kris Letang, who has become an increasingly popular target for the fan base on social media, talk shows and the like.

On Saturday, it was another bad start that cost the Penguins, but what made this latest one still stand out is that Letang, fresh off finishing an emotional victory Thursday against the Blue Jackets with a slick shootout goal, committed one of his ghastlier giveaways of the season to set it up: On a play any defenseman at any level can make effortlessly, never mind a three-time champion and three-time All-Star, this happened …

The pass was about 4 feet behind defense partner Brian Dumoulin’s blade and, thanks to the still-relatively-clean ice, took a generous carom off the lively boards at PPG and to the stick of Anaheim’s Ondrej Kase, who broke in alone and beat Matt Murray to make it 1-0 just 3:06 into the first period.

“It was just a bad pass by me,” Letang told DKPittsburghSports.com. “It was behind Dumo, and it bounced off the boards really hard right to their guy.”

“It’s just a play,” Dumoulin said. “It happens.”

“Sure mistakes happen, but I think we’ve got to cut them down,” said Matt Murray, who was yanked after giving up three goals on 13 shots in just under 23 minutes. “I’ve got to come up with a save there as well. It’s my job as a goalie to bail somebody out if they make a mistake.”

That play, though, more than any other miscue, offered a microcosm of the way the Penguins have played in losing six of their past eight. Such carelessness with the puck just can’t happen.

“We’d obviously like to make that one tape-to-tape, it makes the game a little easier, but it didn’t happen,” Sullivan replied when asked about Letang’s pass. “We’ve got to be more focused on making sure that we’re sharp from the drop of the puck.”

But as bad as that play was, it wasn’t the only one from Letang:

As a puck-carrying defenseman on a team that places a premium on puck possession, turnovers are inevitable. Technically, the above play midway through the first period wasn’t a turnover, but it also didn’t need to happen.

Evgeni Malkin, who’d been flying through the Anaheim zone on the shift, dished to Letang, then cut behind him on a clear attempt to criss-cross points at the blue line. But when the Ducks’ Jakob Silfverberg, always a smart two-way forward, approaches aggressively, the cute criss-cross is off the table. The puck’s got to get deep. Instead, Silfverberg nearly poked it into the neutral zone for what would have been another breakaway.

That, however, wasn’t Letang’s most egregious drop pass. Oh, boy, this one was:

On a second-period power play, Letang’s drop pass for Phil Kessel was intercepted by the Ducks’ Andrew Cogliano and nearly resulted in a short-handed goal.

Now, maybe Cogliano or Randy Carlyle or someone else on the Anaheim coaching staff did enough opposition research to know that the Penguins run a set play of dropping the puck to Kessel to gain speed through the neutral zone. Letang’s usually the one starting that rush and dropping to Kessel. But on this sequence, Letang is breaking out with his chin up, and Cogliano doesn’t exactly sneak up on him. That pass can’t happen.

These types of mistakes, in general, just can’t happen. Certainly not continually.

If that were Ian Cole making any of these plays, he could expect to be sitting out the next game. But this is Letang, the Penguins’ third-highest paid player with five more years and $36.5 million remaining on his contract.

Sullivan didn’t publicly single out Letang or anyone afterward. But, really, he didn’t have to.

“I’m not going to sit here and point fingers,” Sullivan responded to a question about whether the Penguins are seeing their supporting-cast problems trickle up to their stars. “We’re all part of this. Our coaching staff is part of it. We’re all a part of it. I don’t think it’s the appropriate time at this point.”

Maybe the most maddening facet of Letang’s season has been the wild-swing inconsistency. After a brutal game in Arizona last week, he was strong the next in Denver. He was great against the Blue Jackets, even before the shootout, and along came Saturday. It’s been one plus forward, two minuses back.

While Letang’s 23 assists and 25 points rank among the top five among all NHL defenseman, he’s also a minus-15 and third among all players with 55 giveaways after the latest two minuses and giveaways on Saturday. From an advanced stats perspective, Letang’s 53.08 Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 is sixth-best among the Penguins, but his points per 60 (.029) is last.

What to do?

The answers aren’t easy.

Letang has overcome a series of off-ice obstacles in his career, including migraine headaches, concussions and, oh, yeah, a stroke in 2014. But the neck surgery that cost him the final four months of the 2016-17 season might be different, even if he’s repeatedly insisted he’s healthy.

It seems unthinkable that Sullivan would make Letang a healthy scratch, but maybe it’s time the Penguins cut down his ice time. He’s been logging 25:49 this season, eighth-most in the NHL, and even in this one he led all skaters on either side at 23:44.

Maybe a little time off can help. Maybe not.

“We have not played to the level of our expectation to this point,” Sullivan said of the Penguins collectively. “Everyone on our team knows it. Our coaching staff, as well. We all have to be better. And my hope is that over the next couple days that every one of us does a little soul searching and re-energizes with the right frame of mind that we move this team in the right direction.”

MATT SUNDAY PHOTO GALLERY

Penguins vs. Ducks, PPG Paints Arena, Dec. 23, 2017. – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

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