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A look at how the Pens are using Kris Letang to shield Justin Schultz

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Matchups are a cat-and-mouse game between the coaching staffs and one of the most interesting "game within the game" right now is how the Penguins are trying to play Justin Schultz against lower line Sharks and how the Sharks are trying to get their stars out against Schultz.

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The matchups and chess games inside of the NHL can be fascinating. It's just below the surface but there to be examined.

One of the most interesting little side-games has been Justin Schultz. The Penguins have been trying to shield and protect Schultz from playing against the top forwards of the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks have been trying to get their skill players out against him.

As our friend Jesse pointed out, the Penguins have been pretty successful at this, as Schultz has been placed in a great position to succeed and has done really well at playing to his strengths with the puck and keeping it out of the Pittsburgh zone. However, Schultz has also been on the ice for the last two SJ goals of the series (including the OT winner in Game 3), so it's a battle that hasn't been totally one-sided and only takes a single play to change the course of the game.

Last night, it was a battle that Mike Sullivan and Jacques Martin raged again.

How do they do it? In a word, as hinted above; Letang. Kris Letang allows the Pens to do this because he can handle so many minutes.

Let's take a look at an example of the "game within the game".

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Kind of odd to see a shift that only last 4 seconds, huh? And a look at Letang's gamelog shows he replaced Schultz at 14:50.

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To break this down:

  • Letang starts a shift when there's 14:58 left in the 1st period
  • just 8 seconds later at 14:50 (at a whistle) Letang is pulled to the bench and Schultz is on the ice
  • just 4 seconds later at 14:46 (and without a whistle) Schultz is called to the bench and Letang is put back out there
Why did this happen?

At 15:06, the Sharks have their 4th line of Dainius Zubrus - Nick Spaling - Tommy Wingels on the ice. This makes the Pens want to get Schultz out there, which they do at 14:50 following an off-side play that results in a neutral-zone draw but still one in positive territory for Pittsburgh.

San Jose recognizes that Pittsburgh has their 4th line and 3rd pair out there, so they cut their 4th line's shift short (Spaling only plays 16 seconds) and elects to put their line of Patrick Marleau - Logan Couture - Joonas Donskoi on the ice. The Pens don't want Schultz on against these guys so they quickly draw him back to the bench.

Here's the video of what went down over this stretch to illustrated how this looks in real time.

At 15:00, the HBK line advances the puck into the SJ zone and that's when Letang jumps on, but Brian Dumoulin doesn't hold the puck in at the blueline, resulting in the off-side call. NBC shows a video replay and then note who is on the ice.

This is bad news for Pittsburgh, but not a time to panic. Matt Cullen wins the faceoff clean back to Ian Cole who blasts the puck into the SJ zone and Schultz immediately returns to the bench in favor of Letang.

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So, in a nutshell:

Mouse: gets NZ faceoff (though close to the offensive blueline) so they put their weakest players out to match the opposition's 4th line, who just began a shift, figuring it's as good a time as any to get Letang a rest and also not have him winded when SJ's top players are back out there.

Cat: Realizes they have an opportunity to exploit Schultz, shortens the shift of their own 4th line to get top players on ice

Mouse: Wins faceoff, gets Letang back out there to shelter Schultz from playing against top players

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As you look at the TOI above, you can see this happened several times with Schultz with 8 shifts of 0:17 seconds or less. There was a cat-and-mouse game going on all night between the coaching staffs to try and exploit matchups.

San Jose was able to use their home-ice last change in the above example to get scorers out against Schultz. The Pens obviously had a plan in place to combat this and pulled Schultz at the earliest possible opportunity.

In a way, when the Penguins play Kris Letang, he's a #1 defenseman and a #6 defenseman basically at the same time. He enables them to cover for Schultz and that in turn puts Schultz in a better position to succeed.