BUFFALO — Kris Letang showed his exceptional passing ability on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third goal in their 6-3 loss to Buffalo Wednesday night at KeyBank Center.
The Penguins were on a power play coming out of the second intermission, and Sidney Crosby won the faceoff that got the third period started. He pulled the puck to Evgeni Malkin, who moved it along to Letang.
Letang, who was around the middle of the Penguins’ zone, launched a pass toward Jake Guentzel, who was near the Sabres’ blue line. Guentzel pulled in the pass, broke in on Buffalo goalie Eric Comrie and beat him to put the Penguins up, 3-1.
It was a typically sweet shot by Guentzel, but it was Letang’s pass that made the play.
And which likely would have been the focus of much postgame discussion if the Sabres hadn’t proceeded to score the next five goals and extend the Penguins’ skid to 0-5-1.
There should, however, be no question about Letang’s ability to distribute the puck.
A much more important one is why he does it so often when the Penguins have a man-advantage.
Letang quarterbacks the No. 1 unit from the left point, and usually is able to find a teammate who’s happy to get the puck.
The trouble is, passing is just about the only thing Letang ever does when he’s working the point.
Forget just how adept he is at that; the Penguins’ power play could be a lot more effective if Letang would be willing to shoot it more often.
Or even once.
Because the next power-play shot with which he is credited will be his first in 2022-23.
Letang has logged 41 minutes, 27 seconds of power-play time in the Penguins’ first 11 games (one of which he missed Tuesday because of illness), but has yet to put a puck on goal while his team is up a man.
It’s not that Letang has a general aversion to shooting — his tied for the shots lead among Penguins defensemen with 17 — but it hasn’t been part of his repertoire when they have a man-advantage.
Opposing penalty-killers seem to be aware of that, and if they don’t have reason to believe that Letang is a threat to shoot, they can cheat toward other members of the power play.
If Letang would occasionally launch a puck toward the net, opponents might be reluctant to take such a risk — and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ power play likely would become more productive.
Mind you, Letang isn’t the only member of the No. 1 unit who is inclined to pass up shots, but he’s the most consistent — and conspicuous — guilty party.
A power play that’s performing to its potential — especially the group with Bryan Rust, Crosby, Guentzel, Malkin and Letang — could be critical to pulling the Penguins out of their current tailspin. And Letang being willing to put pucks on goal could play a vital role in making that possible.
Coming up short
Having an underachieving power play is bad. Having a consistently poor penalty-kill is worse.
And the Pittsburgh Penguins do.
Theirs ranks 28th in the league, with a success rate of just 71.1 percent.
They had one of the NHL’s finest for much of last season, before Teddy Blueger got a broken jaw and while Brian Boyle and Zach Aston-Reese still were in their personnel mix.
The Sabres scored on one of four tries with the extra man — the Tage Thompson goal that sparked Buffalo’s comeback in the third period — making them the ninth Penguins opponent in 11 games to get a man-advantage goal.
Sullivan pointed out that the Penguins are working some new penalty-killers (Kasperi Kapanen, Josh Archibald and Ryan Poehling) into the rotation and said he believes the unit is improving, but the Penguins have to hope that getting Blueger back — he’s eligible to leave the Long-Term Injured list for their game against Seattle Saturday — will have a quick and significant impact.
Crosby has been doing the near-impossible since his earliest days in the league.
Lately, though, he’s been doing — or, more to the point, not doing — something borders on downright unthinkable: He’s not setting up goals.
Crosby has not gotten an assist in any of the Penguins’ past six games.
That means, among other things, that he’s still stuck on 899 in his career.
His drought doesn’t figure to go on much longer, but few probably would have guessed that it would reach a half-dozen games, either.
When Crosby does get No. 900, he will be the 20th player in NHL history to reach that milestone, and someday, he’ll be able to catch up with a lot of the guys in that club at a Penguins alumni get-together.
That’s because no fewer than seven of the 19 players who have gotten to 900 spent at least part of their careers with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They are Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Paul Coffey, Bryan Trottier, Larry Murphy, Mark Recchi and Jaromir Jagr.