The first is obviously goalie Louis Domingue, who pretty much stole the game with a 40-save effort in his first start as a member of the Penguins. Given his career resume to this point I am not sure if he is a realistic option for the backup goalie spot, but he did exactly what the Penguins needed him to do in a spot start. Nothing at all wrong with that.
The other player is defenseman Kris Letang, who continued his outstanding season by playing a complete game that saw him score a highlight reel goal for his third goal of the season and second in as many games.
The Penguins’ defense has been a big part of their success through the first half of the season as they seem to have found three solid pairings that all play their roles extremely well. The third pairing of Mike Matheson and Chad Ruhwedel has been very strong in its minutes, while Marcus Pettersson and John Marino are typically a pairing where the whole is great than the sum of its parts. Then there is the trusted top pairing of Letang and Brian Dumoulin that is still getting the job done even at their current ages.
Letang has been especially outstanding. What is most impressive is that a lot of his numbers and impacts are not only great for this season and for a defender at his age, but some of them are among the best of his already spectacular career.
The two tables below (sorted by year) via Natural Stat Trick show his yearly 5-on-5 numbers on an individual level and his on-ice team numbers.
Here are the individuals.
Here are the team on-ice number....
Not only are most of them an increase and an improvement over what he has done in recent seasons, and not only are most of them above what he has done in an average year throughout his career, a lot of them are among the BEST he has ever done in his career.
Take for example his 1.38 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes number. That is the fourth highest number of his career. Right now, at age 34 (and soon to be 35). Keep in mind also that his next two highest performances after this one are from the previous two seasons. So it is not really a random late-career surge. He has been consistently producing at this level every year even as he gets older. Among the 140 defenders that have played at least 450 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season, that number places him 17th in the entire league right now. He is also generating shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances at nearly career high rates (his 3.58 individual scoring chances per 60 minutes are quite literally the highest mark of his career).
When you look at the team performance with him on the ice, the Penguins are allowing just 2.04 goals per 60 minutes (second best mark of his career, and best since the 2007-08 season when he played a significantly smaller role) while his scoring chance and expected goal differentials are also near the top. He is simply playing an outstanding all-around game and still driving offense at an elite level.
He is one of the Penguins’ many free agents after this season, and quite honestly, should be the top priority out of all of them. Or at least a 1A and 1B situation with Evgeni Malkin. He has not really showed any signs of slowing down much (if at all) and given the way he takes care of himself and trains you have to think he still has some productive years ahead of him.
The Penguins are still Stanley Cup contenders and Letang’s continued excellence as the go-to-player on the defense is still a major reason why. He still has that game-changing ability.