Winning professional hockey games is difficult. Winning them against hot teams like the Dallas Stars, who had won four in a row heading into Wednesday night's contest, is even trickier. Winning games against hot teams like the Dallas Stars on the road after surrendering the first goal and losing a solid forward and your best defenseman is Gordian Knot-like.
But the Penguins won, battling through D. "All Of The Above" to earn 4-3 shootout victory in a sparsely filled American Airlines Center that sounded a lot like the Civic Arena circa-1999. That's now four wins in a row for the Pens, and seven victories in their last nine contests.
Marc-Andre Fleury was really, really good. He made 30 saves on 33 shots, many of the eye-popping variety. He needed to sans Letang, while Deryk Engelland and Brooks Orpik were habitually were caught out of position. So it goes.
The forward corps as a whole were solid. Chris Kunitz, Craig Adams and Steve Sullivan all scored goals. Pascal Dupuis, of all people, netted the winner in the shootout. That's the type of scoring sampling you find from successful teams in June.
With no offense intended to Sullivan, the real news of the game centers on Letang. Both in the nature of his injury and the ramifications of what a Letang-less future poses to the Penguins.
Much more on that after the jump.
You knew things were bad as soon as you saw Letang lying in a heap on the ice, writhing in agony as his hands covered his face. The defenseman was felled by Stars winger Eric Nystrom, physical, perhaps permanent, punishment for a major self-defense infraction.
Two things need to be made clear on a play like this:
1). Letang made a mistake by leaving his head out in the open. A defenseman as skilled and knowledgeable as he is should know by now that reaching out for a puck, leaning forward with your head prone and open is always a recipe for disaster. It's something you're taught from day one playing hockey: KEEP YOUR HEAD UP. Letang didn't, and he was made to pay for it.
That being said...
2). Nystrom's hit is the type that needs to be evicted from hockey. This is a fast, "bang-bang" play, the type that, upon first look, you empathize with Nystrom. He's playing hard out there. The only way he could avoid Letang is to not hustle, or so I thought upon initial inspection.
But the key is that Nystrom isn't going in to win the puck. Period.
Nystrom has no designs on winning possession and initiating an attacking maneuver. He has designs on laying a big hit on an important player.
Yeah, fun stuff. Maybe it'll get you on a highlight reel some day. But it's the type of thing that creates situations like this. Letang, in a moment of naivete, leaves himself prone. Nystrom, flying in, guns blazing, punishes him.
How long will Letang be out for? Who knows. The Penguins are saying "upper body," which, in its own, ambiguous way, points in big, bright neon lights to "concussion" in the dictionary of the mind's eye.
The Pens have two days off before they play the Avalanche in Colorado on Saturday. For as porous as the defense was after he left, and for as much as one genuinely cares about his health, it'd be nice to see Letang play. Just don't count on it happening.