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Kris Letang 1000 Games; Introspective on Time, & First Shift Goof-Up



Pittsburgh Penguins, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin

Since drafting Mario Lemieux in 1984, this fourth chapter of the Pittsburgh Penguins book has been the most fruitful of the franchise’s 55-year existence. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and now Kris Letang have played 1000 games, all with the Penguins. Three Stanley Cups, heartbreaks, coaches, and GMs have come and gone, but for the last 16 years, Crosby, Malkin, and Letang have been constants.

Technically, Letang won’t play his 1000th game until the puck drops Sunday at 6 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena in a game between the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.

Friday after practice, Letang was introspective, if not appreciative and accepting of the time that has passed.

Letang’s career wasn’t always smooth. He’s suffered a pair of strokes, including earlier this season, missed the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs with a severe neck injury, endured four head coaches of wildly varying personalities, and endured more than his share of criticism.

But Sunday is Letang’s day, at least until the puck drops. For Sidney Crosby’s 1000th game, the team copied his warmup routine, as everyone stopped to tie their skates at the exact moment Crosby always does. For Malkin’s 1000th game, his six-year-old son announced the starting lineup in the locker room before the game, and the team dropped to the ice in warmup at the same time as Malkin to emulate his leg stretches.

“I’m kind of scared because I have one of the craziest warmups, and they hate me for it,” Letang joked. “So I have no idea. I hope they don’t do anything.”

PHN couldn’t help but note the time former Penguins coach Michel Therrien recounted having to chase the Penguins’ superstar kids away from the rink, or they’d stay all day. Letang, Malkin, Crosby, and Fleury were kids at the rink together.

Letang also brought up an interesting perspective. Because they were young players coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, which fundamentally changed the game, the Penguins core is a generation of players that bridged the gap between the old NHL and the new young, skilled players.

“I mean, the game evolved, right? It’s a different generation, also. We had a chance to play with old school guys like Billy G (Bill Guerin), Hall Gill, Rex (Mark Recchi),” Letang said. “I think they helped us grow as players. Like Gonch (Sergei Gonchar), these guys came from a generation where you had to be mentally strong. And I thought we learned a lot from them, the way they saw the game.

“Obviously, the game is evolving, and we’re embracing it, too. We want to prove that (even though) we’re getting older, we’re still able to adjust and be a factor.”

Letang wasn’t present for Crosby’s rookie year (2005-06), even though he was drafted in the third round of the 2005 draft (62nd overall), behind Crosby (1st overall), and Michael Gergen (61st overall). Perhaps fortunately, he missed what was easily one of the worst seasons in franchise history. Everything went wrong in 2005-06, and a season of hope became the worst record in the NHL.

He spent the next two seasons after being drafted with his junior team, Val d’Or Foreurs, before playing seven NHL games in 2006-07.

Hope was on the horizon as Malkin joined the team in 2006-07, too. Fleury, the 2003 first-overall pick, was figuring out the NHL game, albeit in fits and starts.

Letang finally joined the Penguins full-time when the team was on its upswing, which concluded in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final. It wasn’t smooth sailing for Letang in his first game that season, either.

“I remember the score. I remember my opponent. I remember my first shift. It was not pretty,” Letang said coyly before getting into the details.

“I lost my stick in a battle because of the rule change at that time that they were calling a lot of holding hooking, stuff like that. So as soon as I got to the battle, my stick was caught. I said I don’t want to take a penalty on my first shift. So I dropped my stick. When I went to get it, the puck got rimmed and hit my stick — (my stick) went one way, the puck the other way. I didn’t know what to do. I kind of froze. I ended up taking my stick and sprinted to the bench. I just took the change, my heart was racing, but I think I got the guys laughing on the bench. So that was a plus.”

Fortunately, Letang’s career improved from there.

Over his first 999 games, Letang has 686 points, including 154 goals. Of course, injuries and illness have been an issue. Just three times in the last 10 seasons has Letang played more than 70 games.

But he also plays more than 25 minutes per game. Just three times in the last 10 years has he averaged less than 25 minutes and never less than 24.

Former GM Jim Rutherford called him “the straw that stirs the drink.”

His name and likeness will someday be in the Penguins’ Ring of Honor, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and perhaps his jersey in the rafters with his compatriots, No. 87 and No. 71. A 17-year career, and he’s signed for five more.

And if it means anything, Letang scored the game-winner in Crosby’s 1000th game. Crosby scored the game-winner in Malkn’s 1000th game. Perhaps Malkin is due for the GWG Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers.

There are thousands more words and stories from Letang’s career.

Here is the locker room footage from our TV partner, WPXI: