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Letang Making Push For Norris Consideration

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Remember way back when Kris Letang had a bad game, owned up to it, and the Pittsburgh Penguins fans still took to the internet to spew venom toward the defenseman?

Yeah, that was six days ago, a 4-2 loss at home to arch rival Philadelphia. Letang was so frustrated by a couple defensive lapses that afterward he said that “a big part of this loss was my fault.”

Looks like that really was an outlier game this season for a longtime team core player who has been puzzlingly polarizing over the years. It’s just days later, and Letang is coming off a 24-hour span where he scored twice and had a strong game Thursday in a 6-2 win over the Islanders and had his name thrust further into the Norris Trophy discussion.

Bovada, the betting house often used as a barometer for NHL odds, has elevated Letang to the fourth favorite to win the Norris Trophy, at 13/2 odds.

Letang, 31, has never won the award for best NHL defenseman. He was a Norris finalist in 2013. Before he had a stroke. Before he had disc surgery in his neck that wiped out his 2016 playoffs and, it would seem, affected him throughout last season.

This season, with rare exception, Letang has been a force.

While there are bound to be some defensive miscues and turnovers for even the best offensive defensemen, Letang has seemed to be on the prosperous side of the equation this season. Strong on the puck. And not so quick to dish it, even to star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Letang leads the Penguins with 87 shots, almost 3 ½ per game on average.

“Probably a different mindset,” Letang said. “Sometimes I play with Sid, Geno, those type of guys. I tried to get them the puck as much as I could before, and now this year I’m trying to shoot the puck more and create offense that way.”

It hasn’t been without prompting. Coach Mike Sullivan indicated that Letang has both wanted to and been urged to look for shots more.

“I’m sure it’s a little bit of both,” Sullivan said. “Tanger, he really assesses his own game. He’s a student of the game himself. We’re trying to offer them any insights that we see, and we’ve tried to encourage the whole team to shoot more.

“Just in general as a group, we tend to look for the next play a lot. Part of that is because of the types of players that we have. We have a lot of skills guys that it’s just how they’re wired. They are constantly looking for that next play.

“Sometimes, the best play is just put the puck on the net, and Tanger’s doing a better job at it – and some of them go in.”

Letang is tied for third in the league among defensemen with seven goals and ranks seventh points, 24.

His two goals gave Letang 12 points over the past 11 games.

“I think it’s pretty balanced across the board for me throughout the year. I had a great start also. There’s nothing special. Just trying to play my game.”

Phil Kessel also had two goals against the Islanders, meaning two players were looking at possible hat tricks. For Letang, it would have been his first in the NHL.

But he wasn’t getting greedy.

“I’ve had a couple two-goal games in the NHL that I was close,” Letang said. “Everybody was trying to get it to me. I was thinking about it, but …  it might be fun another time.”

It was the ninth time overall and second time this season Letang has scored twice in a game. He did it in the season opener against Washington.

Perhaps one day he’ll be the first Penguins defenseman since Paul Coffey in 1988 to achieve a hat trick.

You have to go back further to find the only Norris Trophy winner in Penguins history, Randy Carlyle in 1981 – before Letang was born.

 

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Shelly is the newest columnist and reporter for Pittsburgh Hockey Now. She was a Penguins beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and remains a contributor to The Hockey News. Catch her on Twitter @_shellyanderson

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