Kris Letang had a few things to say Friday after practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. The Pittsburgh Penguins top defenseman broke a little news and broke down the team’s six-game skid in a one-on-one interview with PHN.
First, the news: Letang missed Monday’s practice and Tuesday’s home game against the Boston Bruins because of an illness. That was first the public heard about him not feeling well, but that was not the extent of it.
“Slowly been getting there,” Letang said of recovering. “It’s been 10 days.
“It was weird. I caught it in Edmonton and I then felt a little bit better, and after that I went down again and I felt really bad at the end of the (western) trip. Even the Seattle game (last Saturday), I didn’t feel well. That was worrying me and bothering me.”
After a travel day Sunday and the two days off back in Pittsburgh, Letang played Wednesday in Buffalo, and while it sounds as if he still wasn’t – and isn’t – 100 percent, he said playing that game “was OK.”
Letang didn’t divulge the nature of his illness, making it sounds as if it wasn’t really pinpointed.
“It was a lot of things,” he said. “I can’t really put a diagnosis on it.”
While Letang did not relate his illness to his play during losses at Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Seattle, in hindsight there were indications he was not at his best.
Going back to his most recent six games, he has a collective plus-minus of minus-11, and has been minus or even each of those games, including minus-3 Wednesday at Buffalo. He had an assist against the Sabres, his first point in six games. He also struggled at times in recent games with puck management.
It should be noted that Penguins top-line winger Jake Guentzel missed Friday’s practice because of an illness, according to coach Mike Sullivan, but it’s unclear whether it is the same thing Letang had.
One thing that is overwhelmingly clear is that the Penguins are struggling. Their six-game losing streak (0-5-1) equals their longest skid of the Sullivan era.
Even though Letang didn’t play in one of those games, he feels the mounting losses deeply.
“This is my life,” he said. “I’m going to take it away (with me), outside the rink. It’s something I constantly think about.
“But I believe in what we do here, and I believe in the team that we have, that we’re going to be successful. I have faith. I think things are going to go back (to being good), and we’re going to be all right.”
The problem, as Letang sees it, includes a loss of confidence. He sees that as something that can turn around quickly.
“It’s just going to be a moment,” he said. “We just have to get together and play a solid game. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be a ‘grind game’ that we come together. That’s how we build the confidence back.
“We know we’re not that far. If you look at the five-on-five play, the chances … it’s little spans or little sequences in the game that we kind of drop and the other team might take over and we get behind the eight-ball.”
If that sounds like a crisis of consistency, Letang disagrees.
“It’s not consistency,” he said. “I think it’s more the fact that you have to be able to manage the ebbs and flows of the game. Other teams are good. We have to give them credit. Sometimes they’re going to push, and you have to be able to handle it. If they push hard and they’re applying pressure, you have to be able to manage it. You have to be poised. And if they score a goal, you need a shift to settle things back down.
“Right now, when you don’t have your confidence and things start happening, you’re kind of in your head, like here it goes again. You’re just waiting to see what’s going to happen instead of just going out there and saying, ‘Let’s calm down and go back to work.’”
At 35, a team alternate captain and one of the Penguins’ three core players – along with centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – who are playing in an NHL-record 17th season together and have three Stanley Cup rings, Letang might feel an extra sense of responsibility to help get things turned around.
He does not, if only because he puts so much belief in the team as a whole.
“It’s everybody,” Letang said. “When we sit down in the locker room, everybody’s important, whether you play 25 or 10 minutes, it doesn’t matter. Everybody brings something to the table, whether it’s a spark or a hit or a goal or a good play. That’s how you build back your confidence.”
And, for Letang, perhaps he will build back his health at the same time.