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Letang Fought Through Personal Side, Never Able to ‘Totally be There Mentally’



Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgnei Malkin, NHL Trade talk

COLUMBUS — Kris Letang was honest, perhaps to a fault, Thursday after the Pittsburgh Penguins lost their meaningless regular-season finale against the Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-2 in OT.

No one really cared about the result. The Penguins’ collective heart was shattered this week when they failed to beat the lowly Chicago Blackhawks at PPG Paints Arena Tuesday, then were forced to watch the New York Islanders clinch the playoff spot they missed the following night.

Fans will spend a long offseason dissecting the Penguins’ season, but Letang has already begun dissecting his season. Letang was clearly wearing the emotion of a missed playoff berth, but more than that, the cumulative toll of personal hardships and tragedy.

Facing the end of the season, Letang admitted that he needed to get away from the game for a little while to clear his head. Many players in the Penguins’ room faced their first non-playoff season compounded with the haunting pain of regret and missed opportunity.

But it was deeper emotions for Letang. In late November, Letang suffered a second stroke. In January, he lost his father, Claude, who died suddenly.

“I think I was never able to get a groove for some reason. This was really tough, especially on the personal side,” said Letang. “So I was never really able to get into a groove or totally be there mentally … So I’m just going to get away and try to clear my head.”

On the list of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ problems this season, Letang would be nowhere near the top of the list. The defenseman returned from his stroke and rejoined the lineup two weeks later. In 64 games, he posted 41 points, including 12 goals.

His minus-13 rating is a combination of the many factors which kept the Penguins out of the playoffs. Bad decisions, soft goaltending, lack of urgency, and empty-net goals against are just some reasons Letang posted the career-worst plus/minus.

He was on the ice for many of the Penguins’ blown third period leads. Technically, Thursday’s loss counted as the 10th time the team gave up a third period lead.

But the loss to Chicago only added the tonic to the cocktail of a season full of regret.

“It’s just awful, and you’re trying to reflect on things that slipped through our hands,” Letang said. “It’s not like we didn’t have our destiny in our hands. We found a way to lose games this year.”

The Penguins, indeed, did find ways to lose. Multiple-goal leads to the New York Islanders vanishing on three occasions. Flip any of those games, and the Penguins are in the playoffs. The losses to teams that couldn’t buy a win elsewhere also ring loudly.

After the loss to Chicago, Letang said the team didn’t “bring the same demeanor or play for 60 minutes” against those teams.

After Thursday’s finale, Letang paid tribute to his longtime defense partner Brian Dumoulin, a pending unrestricted free agent.

“This is the guy that I’m the most comfortable playing with. My best years in the league (have been) spent beside him. He’s such a good partner to be paired with,” said Letang. “It’s not only that, he’s vocal. He’s a guy that kind of understands the game really well. In the room, he’s a guy that people gravitate around. So I hope he’s with us next year. And I think he’s proven to be a tough defender in this league.”

What comes next for the Pittsburgh Penguins organization appears to be the turbulence of massive upheaval. Dumoulin’s future is up in the air.

But for Kris Letang, who will turn 36 in this month, there hasn’t been a dropoff in physical skills. He averaged nearly 25 minutes per game this season. That’s important because he’s signed for five more years.

And hopefully, Letang can take time to process the personal side and clear his head, too.