Back-to-back wins build mo­men­tum

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Weekend Sports - ja­son mackey Ja­son Mackey: [email protected] and Twit­ter @JMack­eyPG.

A sea­son ago, while com­ing off of se­ri­ous neck surgery, the Pen­guins coach­ing staff asked Kris Le­tang to ad­just his game, to play a more con­ser­va­tive style.

In­stead of mak­ing so many high-risk plays, the Pen­guins wanted Le­tang to grow com­fort­able liv­ing to fight an­other day, in part to pre­serve his health but also to min­i­mize risk.

It didn’t have the de­sired ef­fect, as Le­tang strug­gled for much of 2017-18. He was hes­i­tant. He thought en­tirely too much. Con­fi­dence be­came an is­sue, both of­fen­sively and de­fen­sively. Then, there was the neck.

With a clean bill of health this sea­son, a dif­fer­ent al­ter­ation has had a pro­found im­pact on Le­tang’s game: He’s shoot­ing more. A lot more.

Through 26 games, Le­tang leads the Pen­guins in shots on goal with 87. Amaz­ingly, that’s 10 more than the sec­ond­place Pen­guin (Pa­tric Horn­qvist, 77) and 13 more than Sid­ney Crosby and Phil Kes­sel, who are tied for third.

Le­tang is on pace for a ca­reer-high 271 shots on goal, and only four de­fense­men in the en­tire NHL had more be­fore the games Fri­day.

“Prob­a­bly a dif­fer­ent mind­set go­ing into it,” Le­tang said af­ter the 6-2 win Thurs­day against the New York Is­lan­ders, which turned out to be the ninth two-goal game of his ca­reer and sec­ond this sea­son.

“I have the chance to play with [Sid­ney Crosby], [Ev­geni Malkin], those kinds of guys, I tried to get them the puck as much as I could be­fore. This year, I’m try­ing to shoot the puck more and cre­ate of­fense that way.”

Le­tang has cer­tainly done that, enough to thrust him­self into the Nor­ris Tro­phy con­ver­sa­tion in a big way.

Le­tang has seven goals and 24 points in 26 games. Only two de­fense­men in the NHL have more than his seven goals. Only six have eclipsed Le­tang’s point to­tal.

The Pen­guins’ No. 1 de­fense­man is on pace for 22 goals, 53 as­sists and 75 points, all of which would be ca­reer-best marks for him. He re­mains third in the NHL in av­er­age ice time per game at 25:54.

Le­tang’s shoot­ing per­cent­age (8.0) is the third-high­est of his ca­reer. That tells us this isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a freak thing. It might ac­tu­ally be some­what sus­tain­able.

Five-on-five, Le­tang’s in­di­vid­ual shot at­tempts per 60 min­utes is at a ca­reer-best level (14.03). Ditto for his five-on-five shots on goal per 60 (8.03).

“It’s pretty bal­anced across the board for me through­out the year,” said Le­tang, who has three goals, 12 points and 37 shots on goal over his past 12 games. “I had a great start, also. There’s noth­ing spe­cial. Just try and play my game and work that way.”

No mat­ter how you slice it, tra­di­tional or ad­vanced, Le­tang’s will­ing­ness to shoot the puck has been blind­ingly ob­vi­ous. He’s more con­fi­dent, and his of­fen­sive tal­ent has been hard to miss.

Take Thurs­day, for ex­am­ple. On Le­tang’s first goal, he ex­e­cuted a ter­rific pass­ing play with Derick Bras­sard. Credit Bras­sard with finding Le­tang, but, when Le­tang has had an open lane, there’s been zero hes­i­ta­tion when it comes to drilling one.

The same for his shot from 55 feet that seemed to have a lit­tle bit of English on it. Goalie Thomas Greiss cer­tainly couldn’t find it.

Le­tang isn’t hes­i­tat­ing, isn’t think­ing about finding his team­mates, isn’t think­ing about get­ting creamed, In­stead, he’s fig­ur­ing out places to put the puck and ways to beat goalies.

“First cou­ple of times, I had lanes to shoot,” Le­tang said of his per­for­mance Thurs­day. “I can’t force it too much. Some­times it’s go­ing to be there, some­times it’s not. I just have to take what they give me.”

That Le­tang is get­ting any­thing right now is fairly sur­pris­ing.

Ear­lier this week, Bo­vada re­leased its lat­est Nor­ris Tro­phy odds, and only San Jose’s Brent Burns, John Carl­son in Wash­ing­ton and Los An­ge­les’ Drew Doughty were above Le­tang.

While Le­tang’s cur­rent pace is prob­a­bly un­sus­tain­able — those 22 goals and 75 points would have led all de­fense­men last year — Le­tang’s shoot-first mind­set is not.

And on a team that’s hugely ca­pa­ble of scor­ing goals in bunches, where this goes for Le­tang should be plenty in­ter­est­ing.

“Tanger re­ally as­sesses his own game,” Pen­guins coach Mike Sul­li­van said. “He’s a stu­dent of the game him­self. We’re cer­tainly try­ing to of­fer our play­ers any in­sights that we see.

“We’ve tried to en­cour­age our whole team to shoot the puck more. As a group, we tend to look for the next play a lot. Part of that is the types of play­ers that we have. We have a lot of skilled guys, but some­times the best play is to just put the puck on the net.

“I think Tanger is do­ing a bet­ter job of that, and some of them have gone in.”

Alexan­dra Wim­ley/Post-Gazette

Alexan­der Wennberg, left, of the Columbus Blue Jack­ets shoots as Kris Le­tang, cen­ter, eyes the re­bound on Nov. 24 at PPG Paints Arena. Le­tang is on pace for a ca­reer-high 271 shots on goal this sea­son, com­ple­ment­ing his typ­i­cal staunch de­fend­ing.

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