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Seeking season sweep of Flyers, Pens will try new defensive pairs

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Looking for yet another win over Philly, Pittsburgh will try something new with Kris Letang this afternoon

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As the Penguins prepare to face the Philadelphia Flyers for a final time this season (in the regular season, anyways) they will do so with some new personnel together defensively. From Jonathan Bombulie at the Trib:

Jamie Oleksiak has taken Brian Dumoulin’s spot on the team’s top defense pair with Kris Letang. The new top pair played together some in Friday night’s 4-3 overtime loss to New Jersey and was together again at Saturday afternoon’s practice in Cranberry.

Dumoulin skated on the second pair with Justin Schultz. Olli Maatta and Chad Ruhwedel stayed together on the third pair.

“We just thought we would try to affect a little bit of change to see if it would give our team a spark,” Sullivan said.

Dumoulin and Letang have played together for most of the season. They’ve been on the ice together for 984 five-on-five minutes. No other Penguins defense pair has played more than 417 minutes.

The Penguins have struggled defensively since the trade deadline, giving up 3.5 goals per game. They gave up 2.9 goals per game before the deadline.

We took a deep dive on the Brian Dumoulin - Kris Letang pair a few days ago and found that the duo is very strong in shot-based statistical measures. However, hockey is a result driven sport and it wouldn’t be wise to ignore the reality that the Penguins are bleeding goals against with Letang on the ice, and a big reason for that is Letang’s own play and defensive mistakes that are winding up in the net. The goalie’s could be making a few more saves, but Letang doesn’t need to put as much pressure on them as he has been recently. Letang at his best is covering up mistakes and helping the cause, not relying on others to bail out his own poor play.

Jesse Marshall at The Athletic had a great look into Letang’s season and struggles and I found this part quite interesting (though the whole piece is very enlightening):

So, how do we account for these defensive breakdowns and what’s at the heart of them? I think Letang’s desire to get up ice and create offense gets him into trouble on a one-on-one basis. All too often, his posture and line of sight are focused on stealing the puck and not protecting the net.

And this is why trying Letang with Jamie Oleksiak starts to make a bit more sense. We have seen this type of logic before, though not with coach Mike Sullivan. Pair Letang with a younger or lesser defenseman and it seems to grab his attention and make him play it safer. When Letang plays with a true top-pair talent and an excellent defensive-defenseman (like Dumoulin this year or Paul Martin in prior seasons) he can tend to focus on being too fancy and too offensive minded, like Marshall notes above.

So the thinking and hope would be that if you pair Letang with a partner who he knows will need a little more support, it will help simplify his game because he will know he can’t rely as much on a rock steady teammate.

That may help with one area, but one very visible issue for Letang has been getting beaten in one-on-one situations. By picking apart some of those moments, Marshall concluded Letang could stand to play less aggressively and not risk getting burned. If he can be a little stronger in those moments (against high-skill opposition, let’s not forget) that would be ideal.

Oleksiak has been a very pleasant surprise for the most part in Pittsburgh, and he’s probably not ready or going to be asked to play 20+ minutes in a typical top-pairing role. It will be interesting to see how he fares with Letang and how long that duo will be united.

The other benefit of this split is putting Dumoulin - Justin Schultz back together. Schultz has had a somewhat quiet season this year compared to his breakout performance in 2016-17, but he’s played pretty well of late. Adding Dumoulin back with him should do nothing but help his game as well.

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One thing we forgot in yesterday’s post celebrating Sidney Crosby’s scoring was to mention that none other than fan favorite, cancer survivor, American badass and TWO time Stanley Cup champion Phil Kessel has set a career high in points this year. With Kessel’s resume, that’s no small feat with the impressive career numbers that Kessel has produced.

Kessel’s 37 power play points are tied for the league lead and his 27 PP assists are also a career high. The Pens power play basically runs through Kessel on the left wall so this should be an opportunity with his vision and playmaking ability to stay a productive player deep into his 30’s. I also feel like Kessel has quietly scored 30 goals this season, as if that’s not getting enough attention that his goal scoring numbers are up from his first two seasons as a Pen (26 and 23 goals respectively). That’s also obviously a great sign.

And as long as Kessel is putting up 60-70-80+ point seasons it will be a very good indicator that Pittsburgh will be a contending team. Long live The Thrill.