NEWARK, N.J. — The Penguins found themselves in the middle of a one-goal game with five minutes remaining in the second period. The Devils found themselves on a two-on-one.
Then Kris Letang happened.
I know we've been singing the praises of No. 58 lately, but the reasons keep piling up -- this example is no exception. Defending a two-on-one is one of the more passive situations a defenseman can find themselves in.
You want to affect the decision-making of the man with the puck, the shot included if you're able, but your responsibility is the additional attacker. The goalie gets the man with the puck, hopefully swallowing up whatever shot gets through.
Letang is a different kind of defenseman, though. His quickness allows him to act as a third winger for Sidney Crosby, and it allows him to close space on an attacking player more quickly than time and space should allow. That's exactly how he made the picture for me that you see at the top of this page, leading off the game's best photos.
Brian Dumoulin fell down while half-retreating, half-diving at the feet of a deking Travis Zajac emerging from the Devils' zone, and it allowed Miles Wood to take off down the left wing with a pass headed his way into space. The two Devils entered the Penguins' zone, and Letang wasted no time to thwart the attack.
Letang starts by playing the break in the safest way possible. He's drifting backward with speed and respects Zajac until he doesn't. All it takes is Wood to show that he's putting the puck on his backhand -- in a position that doesn't allow him to shoot or pass -- and Letang just pounces on him and that's all; the break was done.
Watch it again, a few more times. Letang knows his speedy teammate, Bryan Rust, is desperately trying to catch Zajac, but he wouldn't. So he doesn't take the chance because of Rust. What he must see, and couldn't be confirmed since he was unavailable after the game, was that flinch that shows indecisiveness from Wood. The moment he shows that he'll lift his stick after gliding with the puck on his forehand in a pass or shoot position and puts the puck on the outside of his blade, he's done.
Letang shut that chance down like he shut down every would-be chance the Devils had while he was on the ice. Sure, Letang was a minus-1 on the day, but that's not exactly a telling statistic for his performance.
Let's go a different route: Letang led all skaters with a Corsi For percentage of 62.96. He was out there for one goal for, while two against to make up his negative rating. But, Letang. Didn't. Give. Up. A. Single. Scoring. Chance.
Figure that one out. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Letang was on the ice for nine scoring chances for and zero against (that doesn't bode well for Matt Murray'sflop of a night, as Dejan Kovacevic pointed out). Three of those were high danger chances.
Translation? He's really good. In Newark, N.J., he was nearly perfect.
[caption id="attachment_776880" align="aligncenter" width="480"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
DEFENSE MAKING OFFENSE
Four Penguins defensemen have scored in the last two games. Letang, Dumoulinand Marcus Pettersson all scored Sunday in Pittsburgh. Chad Ruhwedel scored against the Devils.
Ok, he didn't just score, as you can see above. He obliterated a puck, bar down, sending a *ping* through Prudential Center. Back foot just about on the blue line in Sergei Gonchar-like fashion. Goal. Ruhwedel's first of the season, and he dug his skates in at the blue line, threw his arms above his head, brought his clenched fists down and looked as if he let out a yell.
That's what you see above this section, Ruhwedel celebrating his goal, and a moment I really wanted to share with you all.
DON'T HATE ME ...
... but Dominik Simon isn't the worst player on the Penguins. He's not the worst player in Canada or the United States. He's definitely not the worst player in the world.
Simon is a player with a really unique trait. He plays extremely well with Crosby, but doesn't play well with Crosby if you're only looking at the goal column. Sure, it's important for Crosby to play with a gunslinger or two, and no one would suggest separating him from Rust and Jake Guentzel, but it doesn't change the fact that Simon is a great asset for Crosby and a more than serviceable player, even when relegated to fourth line duties.
Simon had the misfortune of getting injured earlier in the season while he was playing consistently with Crosby and Guentzel. The numbers backed up the decision, regardless of Simon's inability to finish.
But, Simon wasn't playing with Crosby against the Devils. He was on a fourth line with Matt Cullen and Tanner Pearson. There was one moment though, with Crosby, which made me feel validated for arguing that Simon can be an ideal wing on this Penguins team, even if it isn't by contributing goals.
Look at that exchange. It's like watching two Sidney Crosbys interact with each other, understanding how the other is going to move because they're linked cerebrally. Honestly, if you couldn't read the numbers, you wouldn't know which one was which.
And, NO, I'm not comparing Simon to Crosby. But, the truth is that they play the game similarly, just at drastically different levels. The way Simon receives the puck in his skates, buys space for Crosby and effortlessly lays the puck to Crosby behind his back ... well, that's pretty dang Sid-like.
Simon had -- his whole line had -- a really nice game against the Devils. And, as Mike Sullivan told us after the morning skate, they need Simon to play like he ended up playing for the team to be at its best.
Come on. Yes, it's in the game's gallery at the top of the page, but you didn't think this deserved to get its own section? I don't care if you know Patrick Warburton as Puddy, The Tick, the guy from Rules of Engagement or any number of the voices he's provided for cartoons and video games over the years. This was cool. Really cool.
[caption id="attachment_776887" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]