No disputing Kris Letang‘s postgame analysis after the Penguins coughed up what appeared to be a sure win Wednesday night in New York. He rarely dances around the truth when reporters poke and prod.
“I think we got cocky,” Letang said after a 4-3 overtime loss to the rebuilding Rangers. “We didn’t manage it and we got careless. We totally ruined it. Got too confident.”
That’s been the story of the season for a team simultaneously battle-hardened from back-to-back championship runs, yet seemingly unable to arouse themselves enough to avoid the brand of unsightly letdowns we saw at Madison Square Garden. With making the playoffs all but a sure thing, this one appeared to be the epitome of a ‘trap game.’
The Penguins looked to be on their way to avoiding that fate through the first 30 minutes, dominating the puck and poking in a couple goals against rookie goalie Alexandar Georgiev. It could’ve been a bigger lead, but the down payment was made.
Gasoline on a Fire
At that point, up 2-0, the Penguins began giving the still-speedy Rangers ample counterattack opportunities. And Letang’s repeated misreads of the play in front of him greatly contributed to the slow collapse.
Starting midway through the second period, Letang was repeatedly guilty of the ill-advised advances that have consistently sabotaged his comeback season. Let us count the mistakes without the puck …
• With 12:30 left in the second, he got caught flat-footed at the New York blue line, allowing Chris Kreider to blast past Brian Dumoulin for a prime chance that Casey DeSmith stopped.
(I cued up the following video to start with this play, so you can follow along.)
• With 11:20 left in the second, he jumped up into the neutral zone to try to help Phil Kessel keep the puck, despite three Rangers being in the vicinity. The puck was poked past Letang, giving John Gilmour and Vladislav Namestnikov a two-on-one.
• With 3:20 left in the third, with the Penguins killing a penalty, he got way too aggressive with Kreider, allowing the Rangers’ fleet winger to dangle past him and set up Mike Zibanejad‘s game-tying goal.
The Hard Truth
Letang had a ready explanation for the final blunder, saying he was “so scared of” Kreider’s speed that he got too close in an attempt to match Kreider’s pace. Like I said, his analysis is typically spot-on, even if his decision-making isn’t.
Hockey is a team game, and maybe the most fluid one among our major sports. It’s difficult — and frequently unfair — to boil down one result to an individual player. One decision by a teammate dictates your decision, which subsequently leads to another decision by someone else. For instance, on the first play highlighted above, a quick turnover on the far wall doesn’t help matters. Letang was in a very aggressive position, but better puck management would work wonders for all involved.
At the same time, Letang has been caught on the losing side of way too many of these read-and-react plays this season for it to be a coincidence. He’s always carried some risk in his game, yet in this first season post-neck surgery, it’s his mental game that’s often been a detriment.
The shame of it is that Letang’s physical abilities still seem to be there, which is probably no surprise considering his fanatical conditioning regimen. I’d still rank him among the best and most-skilled skaters in the NHL. He told our Shelly Anderson earlier this month that he couldn’t prepare like he wanted to last summer because of the rehab, but to my eye he hasn’t lost a step at age 30.
What’s the Verdict?
However, for all the talk in the second half of the season about how Letang has stayed within himself better, these persistent mental errors are short-circuiting what otherwise has the hallmarks of a feel-good comeback story. I didn’t even mention Kreider’s power-play goal in the third, in which Letang was slow to cover Kreider after Dumoulin failed to block a shot.
Even amidst Wednesday night’s madness, Letang threaded a shot through from the blue line, giving Riley Sheahan a chance for a deflection goal, and even looked decisive on the point of the power play, giving Evgeni Malkin good service to create a golden chance for Patric Hörnqvist in front. (See 4:55 mark of above video.)
Perhaps the good aspects of Letang’s game make his lapses more frustrating. In terms of shot share at even strength, Letang is having his best season in several years, boosting the Penguins’ Corsi For by a full 5 percent when he’s on the ice. At the same time, all it takes is a couple of mistakes in critical areas of the ice to cancel 25 minutes of fine work.
I’d still bet on the Penguins being fine once the stakes are raised. Letang’s play-reading problems don’t appear to be going away, though. It’s not a matter of effort or engagement, but it’s time for the coaching staff to ask themselves some hard questions about the man leading the team in ice time.
How much can they trust Letang? Their decisions in that regard could very well be the most pivotal in the Penguins’ run for history.