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Everything Turned on Feb. 23rd for the Penguins, Kris Letang

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PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 06: Pittsburgh Penguins Defenseman Kris Letang (58) looks on during the third period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators on April 6, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. The Penguins shutout the Senators in a 4-0 win. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa — The Pittsburgh Penguins are still dealing with the effects of the Feb. 23 Stadium Series game at Lincoln Field against the Philadelphia Flyers. Long after Philadelphia was removed from playoff consideration, the Penguins are dealing with the effects of the injury Kris Letang suffered in the first period when he was tackled to the ice during a heated scrum.

After struggling to defend their own zone for most the season, Letang’s injury lurched the Penguins into responsibility. Including that game, the Penguins are 11-3-4. They have allowed two or fewer goals in 12 of those games.

Without Kris Letang, the Penguins have been forced to become comfortable winning low scoring games. The Penguins have scored three or more goals in just 11 of those 18 games including Feb. 23. The Penguins offensive struggles were exacerbated by the loss of center Evgeni Malkin who was injured on March 16.

Since Malkin was injured, the Penguins have scored three or more goals just three times in the last nine games, yet are 4-3-2. A couple of weeks ago, head coach Mike Sullivan said his team had “to become comfortable winning games 2-1 or 3-2.”

They have. Feb. 23 was the turning point for the Penguins style of play and the emergence of their identity; they are built for the rigors and grind of playoff hockey.

Feb. 23 was also the turning point for Letang, who was having a season worthy of Norris Trophy consideration. However, Philadelphia defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere tackled Letang during the melee which resulted from Wayne Simmonds’ high, hard hit on Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin.

The tackle injured Letang who left the game immediately.

Letang missed the next 11 games before he returned on March 19 against the Carolina Hurricanes. Over the next three games, Letang didn’t play less than 24 minutes and played more than 26 minutes twice. He scored a point in each game, too.

Not coincidentally, the Penguins were 2-0-1 in those three games, but Letang wasn’t healthy.

“I didn’t feel that comfortable after those games. I thought taking more time to get better was a better idea,” Letang said after practice Wednesday.

Letang’s attitude denotes the Penguins big picture thinking. Perhaps he could have played a few more games as “hockey players” are known to do, but he chose to get healthy for the presumed playoff run. The Penguins are 2-2-0 since Letang re-exited the lineup due to the injury he suffered on Feb. 23.

“I talk to the doctor. We’ll make a decision based on what is intelligent,” Letang said. “It’s not based on if we do this or if we do that. We’ll go by my health first, and that’s it.”

Good or bad, win or lose, circle the Stadium Series game on the calendar as the date a lot of things changed for the Penguins and Letang. In the weeks before that game, the team was still caught in the malaise of going through the motions of another regular season. Missing the playoffs was a real possibility as head coach Mike Sullivan juggled lines, positions and pushed…and pushed for the Penguins to adopt the simple, tough style of play.

Indeed, they still have not clinched a playoff berth though just two more points will get them over that last hurdle. Letang’s health has cost him any Norris Trophy consideration he may have earned but gained the Penguins an identity which is only enhanced with him in the lineup. The Penguins will again try to beat the red-hot but still bottom feeder Detroit Red Wings tonight at PPG Paints Arena for the right to battle for the Stanley Cup.

And everything turned on Feb. 23.

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