PITTSBURGH — Chasing a second straight Stanley Cup without Kris Letang hasn't been easy for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The defending champs have been trying to scratch their way to the top without their injured No. 1 defenceman. It's been a sometimes wearisome process which nonetheless has them up 2-0 in the Stanley Cup final.
"Not one guy has tried to replace him — you can't," 26-year-old Justin Schultz said of Letang, a two-time all star, before the start of the final. "He's one of the best defencemen in the league and not one of us is going to fill that spot."
One week before the playoffs Pittsburgh announced that Letang required season-ending neck surgery, and on that day the 30-year-old predicted his team would do just fine. His belief came from the club's ability to overcome significant injuries in the past. And, of course, the Pens still had Sidney Crosby.
"You've all seen Sidney Crosby's demeanour, what he wants to accomplish," Letang said, speaking earlier this week at the team's practice facility.
Though they're two wins from winning it all again, the Letang-less Pens defence has hardly been a resounding success, which should be no surprise. Letang, who played only 41 games this season, is a former Norris trophy finalist and the 26th highest-scoring defenceman on a per-game basis in league history (minimum 500 games).
"He's so skilled, it's crazy," Schultz said. "You don't appreciate it until you're on his team and watching him every night what he does for this team."
The Penguins have missed his ability to zip the puck out of the defensive zone, either by dishing it off or carrying it himself. Letang could ignite Pittsburgh's attack all by himself.
"Forwards have to try to get back and help," said Penguins centre Nick Bonino. "With a guy like Tanger, he can make plays a lot of the time to break us out on his own. If we're back earlier helping the D it makes it easier on them."
Struggles to break the puck out cleanly often means more time spent defending and Letang's absence has been especially pronounced on the team's de facto top pair, which has veteran Ron Hainsey filling the void alongside mainstay Brian Dumoulin. The duo has actually fared OK so far in the final against the Preds, but struggled mightily in a second round series against Washington.
Dumoulin posted a sterling 55 per cent possession mark when he played with Letang in last year's playoffs. This year, when teamed with Hainsey, he's down at a lowly 45 per cent.
Letang wasn't wrong when he pointed to Crosby and the Pens other core stars, as reason to believe in the club's ability to overcome his absence. The Penguins hold the first four spots in the post-season scoring race — led by Evgeni Malkin with 26 points and followed by Crosby (22), Phil Kessel (20) and Jake Guentzel (19), who leads all players with 12 goals.
Pittsburgh's quick-strike ability — six goals have been scored in about eight minutes — against a helpless Pekka Rinne has been the big difference in the series so far.
The Pens have spread minutes around almost equally without Letang, who averaged almost 29 per-game during the Cup drive in 2016. Dumoulin is averaging just under 22 minutes to lead the group with Ian Cole sitting on the bottom end at about 19.
In Wednesday's 4-1 Game 2 win, no defender played less than 17:26 (Trevor Daley) and none played more than 19:50 (Hainsey).
When he's been healthy, Schultz (11 points) has scooped up Letang's power play responsibilities and others like Dumoulin and 22-year-old Olli Maatta have seen their penalty killing responsibilities increased from a year earlier.
But not one of the Penguins defender is capable of doing it all and doing it all as well as Letang. The Montreal native ran the power play, killed penalties, matched up against top lines and drove the offence from the back-end.
"I think when you lose Tanger, who plays 26-30 minutes a game, you're not going to be able to replace that," Bonino said.
Letang still makes his presence felt around the group.
He mingled among teammates in the home dressing room after the first two wins over Nashville and has taken to cheering his team on loudly from the press box. He's almost a scout these days, using his view from above to spot tendencies of the opposition, especially when the Pens have a power play.
"I don't work the best way by watching, but I'm really happy for those guys," Letang said. "To see them at this level, at this stage, it's fun to watch."
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press