At about 1 p.m. yesterday afternoon, a collective, sullen exhale left the lips of just about every fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Kris Letang will miss the playoffs due to surgery for a herniated disk. https://t.co/iZ46Wavauc— NHL (@NHL) April 5, 2017
The devastating news about Kris Letang, the team’s best and most beloved defenseman, having to undergo yet another massive season-ending surgery felt like a right-hook to the gut. This sort of negative injury update is being construed to many as the Achilles heel to a successful playoff run this post-season (as well as a possible repeat championship). It was safe to say we all thought he’d be back in the lineup eventually, and when that assumption was officially destroyed, a rush of panic thrust itself across all social media platforms with numerous claims of never being able to replace him.
Are those replacement talks warranted? 100%. Sullivan’s decisions on defensive line-parings will make for some interesting conversation. However, as for the Penguins having no chance to make their mark in the upcoming playoffs, it may be unfair to make such sudden sweeping generalizations.
I know everyone is emotional at the moment, and reacting with bold assertions is a natural part of the grieving process. Letang is a remarkable husband, father, and all-around good person in so many different ways, but what’s second to his character is his tremendous talent as a skater, puck-mover, and high-scoring defenseman. This won’t go unnoticed. But what the fanbase can fall back on is their team’s relentless adversity and what appears to be never-ending depth chart. Just as well, they can lean on the unpredictability of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Penguins have been riddled with injuries to their top players all season, seemingly losing them all in a sort of twisted cyclical fashion. They’re used to playing without Letang, as well as other big names on the roster. Amidst those blows to the lineup, Pittsburgh acquired a few fresh faces on defense – some that are veterans with many years of experience under their belts that have proved they fit perfectly into the head coach’s fast-paced system. Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit are guys who can be relied on when the going gets tough in the upcoming playoff series. That much is clear.
Furthermore, some familiar faces in Trevor Daley and, brace yourself, Olli Maatta will be making their returns in the next couple games – Daley as early as tonight (!!) at New Jersey. Not to mention, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust are back to traveling with the team. That will definitely alleviate some pressure off the new guys.
Here’s some regular reason stats to keep your hands steady:
Letang played 41 games this season. In the games that he started, the Pens boasted a record of 25-10-6, had a Goals For differential of 3.49, and a Goals Against differential of 2.85. Without him? Pittsburgh is 24-9-5 in 38 games, with a Goals For differential of 3.34, and a Goals Against differential of 2.97 (lower). If anything, Letang is a bonus to an already loaded Penguins roster.
Before you rush to the comments section and get all mad at me, yes, I know these numbers are from the regular season and that the playoffs are a whole different ballgame. I get that. My heart attacks from watching the Tampa Bay and San Jose series from last spring still act up every now and then. I realize success in this post-season won’t come easily – especially against Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, and what seems like the unstoppable Washington Capitals.
But I’ve also watched these Penguins battle back in a dominating capacity against adversity all year and beat up some pretty solid teams without their superstars. The playoff atmosphere, specifically amongst the sea of gold inside PPG Paints Arena, will just add fuel to their fire. What team would want to stand on the opposing blue line with that fear swirling in the back of their minds?
Last year they won it for Pascal Dupuis; this year they’re fighting for Letang. I’m not saying it won’t be difficult, because that would be stupid, but it certainly isn’t impossible.